Leading Article: A matter of quality, not ownership

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MICHAEL GREEN'S pounds 758m bid for Central Television yesterday was as daring as it was swift. It came only days after the Government said that it would relax the rules preventing big ITV companies from buying one another, and even before new rules have been put before Parliament. By bidding now, and pre-empting potential rivals from the television industry, newspapers or abroad, Carlton has won a chance to create a giant, which would have a powerful position in the British television industry of the 21st century.

Outside the business, however, the question is whether greater concentration of ownership will be good or bad for viewers. The Carlton-Central company, if the new rules get past Parliament and the bid past the regulators, will control some 30 per cent of the ITV stations' total revenue - comparable to the share of newspaper advertising revenue taken by Rupert Murdoch's newspapers. (With Channel 4 and BSkyB included in the calculation, the new entity's market share falls to a more palatable 22 per cent.)

But viewers care more about what is shown on British television stations than who owns them. Until their 10-year franchises are up, Carlton and Central will continue to be bound by the rules that require them to offer a range of diverse programming, and to tailor some of it to regional tastes.

They have a better chance of doing this together than separately. Cost savings will come not just from less bureaucracy and (if the Government allows it) from pooling their advertising efforts, but also from putting Central's production side to use in a Carlton that has so far bought in all its programmes from outside.

Ten years from now, the present regulations will make little sense. Land-based television broadcasting will offer only a few stations among a much wider choice that includes satellite and cable, so there will no longer be monopoly profits to cover the costs of the quality that the Independent Television Commission (ITC) demands.

British television companies will also be better able to fight on world markets when their ownership is set free than under the old policy of preserving what Carlton calls 'bonsai broadcasters' separately in each region. In the meantime, regulation remains as important as ever. The first round of franchisees are showing programmes that are more downmarket and less serious than the ITC wanted. If the Government's regulatory policy is to retain any credibility as the millennium approaches, the ITC will have to work harder than ever to preserve broadcasting standards.