Leading Article: ITV's poor picture quality

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MORE than a year after ITV was shaken up, the picture is of unfulfilled promises. Companies that confidently ousted existing broadcasters such as Thames and TV-am have delivered inferior products. Most viewers have spotted the downward plunge. From Carlton, the biggest franchise holder, has come little of enduring value, and much to mock. GMTV, backed by Guardian Media Group, has woken the nation with a breakfast of shallow sound-bites and pap.

Yesterday, the Independent Television Commission, which regulates British commercial television, gave its verdict. It castigated Carlton and has threatened GMTV with a pounds 2m fine if the station does not improve its performance. In contrast, Channel 4, which was left undisturbed by franchise changes, was given an excellent bill of health.

The review's forthright language is welcome: it is trying to protect programme makers and viewers. The commission awarded the franchises and so must not let poor standards continue unchecked.

Yesterday's withering critique also established a strong claim for the ITC to be accorded considerable influence in shaping commercial television. The Government may not agree. Last November ministers humiliated the ITC by riding roughshod over its concerns about the merging of ITV stations. But the commission has sprung back confidently. Now that it has flexed its muscles, it should not shrink from acting tough if companies prove incorrigible. In the new commercial climate, only a threat to take stations off the air will make some companies rethink their strategies.

The damning conclusions on new broadcasters raise other important issues. They show that it is easier to destroy a station than to create a successful new one. Carlton was no newcomer to the television medium, yet it has performed unimpressively. TV-am, though much maligned, was in fact an expert in popular breakfast television.

There are also dangerous signs that the revamped ITV is less adventurous, relying on low-risk, trusted formulae. The nursery slopes on which fresh ideas could afford to fail are fast disappearing. Companies that paid dearly for franchises cannot afford to take chances. Increasingly, viewers will find themselves watching familiar material. Much was expected of the ITV Network Centre, a new central programme commissioner with a budget of pounds 540m, surely enough for adventurous thinking. But yesterday's review accuses it of cautious and predictable scheduling.

The conclusions also question the reliance on independent production. Carlton, which contracts out its programmes, was outclassed by Granada, which makes its own. The BBC, busy abandoning production capacity and experienced staff, should take note.