Media merger rules 'unfair' to small firms: TV regulator attacks two-franchise limit

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The Independent Online
THE Independent Television Commission yesterday criticised the Government for changes in the rules on media ownership which limit the ITV franchises a company can hold by number rather than size.

One company can now own up to two franchises, but the ITC says a fairer approach would allow mergers that gave companies up to 25 per cent of the total advertising market, including that of cable and satellite television.

The announcement of the changes last November triggered three takeovers among six of the largest ITV players. LWT succumbed to Granada last Friday; Carlton has taken over Central; and Meridian, controlled by MAI, has agreed to a merger with Anglia.

The ITC, which regulates commercial television, says in its submission to the Department of National Heritage's review of media ownership (due to report later this year) that the position is 'unsatisfactory and cannot be rectified without further legislation'.

It says: 'Basing ownership restrictions on the holding of a particular number of licences without regard to their economic significance is no longer consistent with developments in commercial television'.

The smallest ITV companies - such as Grampian, Border, Ulster, Channel and Westcountry - are losing out under the change.

They are being cold-shouldered by the bigger operators, and the two-franchise limit prevents them clubbing together to protect their interests.

The ITC's proposals would have allowed LWT to bid for Yorkshire Tyne Tees Television (technically already a two- franchise operator) in which it held a minority stake, and secured its own independence from Granada.

The ITC has also criticised rules on cross-media holdings, saying that the 20 per cent share limit set on newspapers investing in ITV is too restrictive. It points out that before the Broadcasting Act 1990 newspapers held much larger television shareholdings.

BBC news coverage of the death earlier this month of Stephen Milligan MP, criticised at the time as censored, was handled responsibly, according to a poll commissioned from NOP by the BBC.

A telephone survey of 1,004 adults showed that 71 per cent thought the threat of air strikes on Serbian positions around Sarajevo, Bosnia, should have received most coverage: this story led the Nine O'Clock News.

A total of 84 per cent said they expected the BBC to produce more accurate news reports than the tabloid press, while 52 per cent disagreed with the statement that the BBC did not give enough detail of Mr Milligan's death.

Radio 5 Live announced yesterday that Peter Allen, political editor of London News Network, will present its new Breakfast Programme and Diana Madill, a reporter on Radio 4's Today programme, will head The Magazine from 8.30am to noon.