The world of media is set to change radically in 1997. Predictions? You read them here first

Click to follow
The Independent Online
As The Independent's media section springs confidently into 1997, it may be useful to provide a checklist of the major media business stories you can expect to be reading in coming months. The list is far from exhaustive - after all, some things are just impossible to anticipate. Who would have thought this time last year that Lords Hollick and Stevens, of MAI and United News & Media, would have agreed to merge their companies? Or that Rupert Murdoch would have mortgaged part of his big stake in BSkyB, the satellite broadcaster?

But we can be sure about a few of the big stories, even if the details cannot be predicted with certainty. This week, for instance, marked the arrival of Marjorie Scardino, the new chief executive of Pearson, who will immediately begin to consider restructuring plans at the flagging media and financial services conglomerate. Its TV interests, grouped under Greg Dyke's Pearson Television, could be spun off to shareholders or even sold outright. If the businesses are kept, Scardino is expected fully to support Dyke's aggressive strategy of buying programme and sport rights. The theme parks division, dominated by Tussaud, could be on the block; and many in the City expect moves to sell a 50 per cent stake in the Lazard merchant banking group.

Also this week, a slew of long-running, separate negotiations - involving cable companies, Hollywood studios, Murdoch's BSkyB, the BBC and pay-TV packager Flextech, are all set to resume. Cable company Telewest will continue to eye takeover targets such as Comcast and General Cable. Cable & Wireless Communications, the largest cable operator, will appoint its chief executive. Telewest, and other cable companies, will also go ahead with talks on pay-per-view film rights in Hollywood, with an eye to launching a digital cable service this year.

BSkyB will complete its contracts with set-top manufacturers, in advance of confirming November 1997 as the date of its own digital launch (on satellite, of course). BSkyB will be in the digital market first.

In addition to its current offerings, BSkyB will bring us a 24-hour business news channel (courtesy of Bloomberg Television), an arts channel, a documentary channel, and a full day of the Computer Channel (now available for only two hours in the evening on the analogue platform). Pay-per-view sport (including Premier League matches) and PPV movies (not exclusive to satellite) are also to come.

If BSkyB finally agrees carriage terms with the BBC and Flextech, then Sky will also offer the BBC's own documentary and arts strands, which may mean dropping plans for its own versions. It's a bit confusing, as negotiation in the pay-TV sector has always been, especially when it involves coupling the slow, careful, bureaucratic BBC with wheeler-dealers such as Flextech and BSkyB.

For their part, Flextech and the BBC will this month complete their own negotiations on the joint venture pay-TV channels, which are likely to be called, collectively, "Galaxy Television with programmes from the BBC" or some such. The two companies expect to have their own electronic programming guide (that's EPG in nerd-speak) in the digital age, and to market the channels as a separate pay-TV package even if the services are carried by other broadcasters (such as BSkyB or the cable networks).

By the end of the month, we will know which companies have made a bid for a digital terrestrial TV licence. By the deadline of 31 January, you can expect the Independent Television Commission to announce that Carlton and International CableTel, the US-controlled cable operator that also owns NTL, the ITV and Channel 4 transmission company, are in the chase. BT is still a possibility, according to the phalanx of "experts" who are advising the main players. A proposal developed by Guinness Mahon, another City firm, has been shelved.

In the ITV sector, the jockeying for advantage among the leading companies - Michael Green's Carlton, Lord Hollick's United News and Media, and Gerry Robinson's Granada - will heat up. By the end of 1997, these three groups will dominate ITV even more than they do now, which is going some. HTV, Yorkshire-Tyne Tees and Grampian will lose their independence.

By the end of March (fingers crossed), Channel 5 will be on the air.

Much has already been written about the new terrestrial TV service, not least about the rising costs of its retuning programme. We still don't know much about Channel 5's programming line-up - though you can expect lots of made-for-TV movies, a five-day-a-week soap courtesy of Grundy, the makers of Neighbours, and games shows galore.

In the print media, two prospects stand out. Newsprint prices will decline, helping newspapers to weather the lingering cover price war. And at least two Tory newspapers (The Times? the Express?) will support Labour in this year's election. The Independent will survive, nay thrive. A new style magazine will be launched in the spring. Time Out will introduce an electronic listings service. Microsoft will roll out its UK electronic newspaper.

And a few bin-ends. Duncan Lewis, ousted from Granada Media Group last month, will get a new job. Rumours of the imminent departure of Sam Chisholm, chief executive of BSkyB, will prove wide of the mark - at least in the first six months of the year. EMI, the music giant, will be taken over. Probably. Maybe.

So, bottom line for media in 1997? Two words: bumper cropn