The Media Column: 'With a US-owned ITV, Britain will become, in TV terms, the 51st state'

Click to follow

Greg Dyke had two things to get off his chest at the close of the Royal Television Society's convention in Cambridge at the weekend. The first was the "bullshit" - his word - that lay behind the Government's decision to lay open ITV to predators from America. (CBS, care of its parent company, Viacom, will be able to own ITV, but no British firm is allowed to own CBS.) The BBC director general is still raging about the two-month-old Communications Act. British broadcasting has been protected from American ownership for decades; the decision to throw that protection away - "I don't think it came from anywhere except a small côterie in Downing Street" - was "nonsense".

He is right; of course he is. The only television executives you hear arguing in favour of a US-owned ITV are those who stand to grab some of the dollar bills that come fluttering in their direction when CBS or whoever begins waving its wallet. The idea that Americans, seemingly just by virtue of being American, will be able to sprinkle a bit of magic management juice on to ITV and turn it into a super whizz-bang company is insulting.

Worse than that, any American owner will be straining at the leash to offload its biggest brands on to its latest market. With an American ITV, Britain could easily become, in TV terms, the 51st state.

Rather than choose to invest more heavily in programming, as the Government insists will happen, any US broadcaster who has just spent a fortune on buying the company is likely to take money out of ITV's pot, not put more in.

What followed Dyke's comments was a predictable outburst from the Downing-Street-côterie-member Ed Richards - the Prime Minister's former special adviser on media - and some robot-speak from the Broadcasting minister Lord McIntosh. Lord M is a member of the Government who knows his buzzwords off by heart and may even believe one or two of them. "We have the protections", he said, "that are necessary to maintain the standards of public-service broadcasting, to maintain our quality and diversity and to protect plurality." And Graham Norton has plans for a remake of The Ascent of Man.

But that is all history now. The law is in place, and no one is in a position to undo it.

There is, however, another worry for Dyke: the "scary" prospect of a new general-entertainment, terrestrial "Channel 6" from Sky, which will compete head-on with ITV and Five. The new channel - it will be called Sky This or Sky That, certainly not C6 - will be launched if Freeview continues to take off in a big way.

There are two broad reasons for Sky's plan. First, if people in the future are moving to multichannel television but without getting a Sky dish, BSkyB wants a piece of the advertising action. At present, Freeview viewers get just three Sky products - Sky News, which is excellent, Sky Travel, which is irrelevant, and Sky Sports News, which is just a tease for the company's real sports channels. If 25,000 Freeview boxes continue to be sold every week, Sky does not want to be left out.

Also, any Sky channel on Freeview acts as a shop window for the company's other products - on sale at a dish-store near you. If you watch Sky Sports News for long enough, you may just want to see the whole match - for a fee, on satellite - on Sky Sports 1.

Any new channel is not going to happen tomorrow. By the end of the year, Freeview is likely to be in up to 2.5 million homes (Sky says it is aiming to have seven million UK dishes by then). There are now 3.3 million households with access to Sky channels via cable. Sky is saying it will act when Freeview gets to the eight-million mark - but why would it choose to give its commercial opponents precise advance warning? The launch will likely come long before then.

There is also the issue of rights to consider. Currently, Sky bids only for permission to broadcast entertainment shows to satellite and cable customers. The right to broadcast programmes on terrestrial is sold separately, so it would not be able merely to whack its biggest Sky One hits on to its new channel, even if it wanted to.

Dawn Airey, managing director of Sky networks, can continue to insist that any new channel is "hypothetical". None of her colleagues will say where the new channel, which will also run on satellite, will leave Sky One. But there were no doubts in Cambridge that her plans were real. Dyke said: "I think you have to take this very seriously... Sky has the spare cashflow and could easily do it."

Carlton's chairman, Michael Green, for whom the problem is very much more local, called it "a real concern". If Sky "starts putting serious money into [original] programming," he said, "that is going to change the balance of broadcasting." ITV - British or American - ought to be very worried.