Leading article: The right time and place

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The Independent Online

The NCC's objections are difficult to take seriously. The line between broadcasting and advertising is already blurred - and has been for some time. There is a huge amount of branding in our everyday lives, and inevitably, whether by accident or design, much of this gets on our screens. Hollywood films have contained product placements for years. And then there is the commercial sponsorship of sporting events to consider. Like King Canute, the NCC seems to be trying to turn back the tide.

It is understandable that commercial broadcasters are in favour of maximising their revenues through product placement deals of the sort that take place in the US. The primary motivation is not mere greed - survival would be a more apt description. Conventional TV adverts are declining, thanks to new technology such as Sky+ and TiVo, which allow viewers to bypass advert breaks between programmes. This, combined with increasingly fragmented audiences and the rise of video on demand, means that in five years few people are likely to be watching conventional adverts at all. When the TV advertising market shrinks in response to this trend, as inevitably it will, commercial broadcasters will find themselves in severe financial difficulties. Product placement is a lifeline.

It should not be a free-for-all. The commercial networks must not allow news and documentaries to contain covert advertisements; this would damage the credibility of such programmes. A list of sponsors at the end of dramas and entertainment programmes would be a fair compromise with independent broadcast values. Such a list would allow the viewer to know exactly what has been advertised. There are calls for such a regime in the US.

A regulated product-placement regime would raise a few thorny questions for the BBC. The corporation is already compromised by sporting events. There were about five hours of Six Nations rugby on BBC1 last weekend, all prominently sponsored by the Royal Bank of Scotland, for example. It could be argued, however, that the BBC has such a hefty commercial advantage with the licence fee that it should continue to remain unsullied by any form of paid advertising.

For good or ill, the time when the world of broadcasting could be hermetically sealed off from the world of advertising is over. Ofcom should recognise this rather than attempt to preserve the regulations of a bygone era.