Who's watching television?

TV regulation is outmoded, autocratic and nannyish, says Michael Leapman; Is there any point in insisting that ITV viewers must be able, night after night, to watch the news and be in bed by 10.30?
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The Independent Online
THE SIX men and four women of the Independent Television Commission are enjoying a busybody autumn. The variety of their decisions and pronouncements, from the assignment of a multi-million-pound franchise to probing the limits of nudity in advertising, illustrates the impressive range of powers they enjoy over what we see on our screens. Yet few viewers would be able to name any of them.

Last month they insisted that a Monday News at Ten could on no account be delayed for a quarter of an hour to accommodate an extra-long episode of Cracker. The cock-eyed outcome was to have Robbie Coltrane's feast of sex and violence switched to a Sunday, when for reasons long forgotten the ITC's rules on prime-time news are less strict.

Then, in the auction for the Channel 5 franchise, they disqualified the highest bidder, using their own mysterious criteria of "quality". By happy chance, the award went instead to the bid spearheaded by two pillars of the Independent Television establishment Greg Dyke, former managing director of LWT, and Lord Hollick, whose MAI group controls Anglia and Meridian, franchise holders for the lucrative East Anglian and southern England regions.

ITC members have also been defending us against corruption during commercial breaks. Last Thursday they published an 80-page research paper on nudity in advertising, concluding that some viewers are offended by naked flesh but most are not, while an insatiable 5 per cent, defined as "libertines", lust for more. A few days earlier, in their monthly review of misleading commercials, they had solemnly scolded the Post Office for implying that its network of foreign exchange counters was more extensive than it is - after only two outraged viewers had complained.

Who are these sages? The ITC has always been a classic quango, packed by the government of the day with placemen and placewomen commonly described as representing the Great and the Good but whose greatness, at least, is open to question. The chairman is Sir George Russell, once one of Margaret Thatcher's favourite industrialists and still chairman of three public companies. His deputy is Jocelyn Stevens, chairman of English Heritage and a former newspaper executive. The others are: Dr John Beynon, senior pro vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey; the Earl of Dalkeith, director of Buccleuch Estates; Roy Goddard, chairman of the Dyslexia Institute; Jude Goffe, venture capital adviser; Eleri Wynne Jones, psychotherapist; Pauline Mathias, chairman of the governors of St Felix School, Southwold; Dr Maria Maloney, marketing manager of Garland and Wolff plc; and John Ranelagh, media consultant.

It would be intriguing to eavesdrop on one of their meetings to discover how this motley group arrives at decisions. Many believe that the most influential voice is that of the senior staff officer, chief executive David Glencross, a veteran of the BBC in its paternalist days before the Birtian revolution. A zealous advocate of public service broadcasting, Glencross is for ever on the lookout for backsliding by the ITV companies. His fingerprints were all over the commission's unyielding insistence on the inviolability of the News at Ten's weekday time-slot against encroachment by anything except live football. Last year he came down firmly against a plan to move the news permanently.

In today's multi-channel era, such hidebound rules on scheduling are an anachronism. When there were only two television stations it made sense to insist that ITV should not devote itself to wall-to-wall entertainment but should leaven the mix with regular news, documentaries and arts programmes at accessible times.

Yet today the ITC has authority not just over terrestrial channels, but also over 76 cable and satellite outlets, most serving niche markets, These range from the new late-night soft porn subscription services to several devoted exclusively to news and documentaries. Given that the two BBC channels are also news-rich, is there any point in insisting that ITV viewers should be able, night after night, to watch the news and still be in bed by 10.30?

If that part of the ITC's regulatory role is suspect, so is its most contentious function, the award of potentially lucrative franchises. In the old days the process was arbitrary but comprehensible. Bidders would get together a team of famous television faces and devise dream schedules, which they would present to the commissioners. The most plausible interviewees (often David Frost) would win - at which point some of the famous faces and many of the intended programmes could well disappear without trace.

The Thatcher ministry of the 1980s believed, rightly, that this process was indefensible, and sought to replace it with a straight auction, treating television as a purely commercial medium like newspapers, books and films. The industry kicked up such a fuss that the 1990 Broadcasting Act diluted that original intention by introducing a "quality threshold".

The C5B consortium won the Channel 5 franchise only after two rivals failed to clear that quality hurdle. Yet Greg Dyke's limp sample evening schedule, built around game shows, soap operas and feature films, suggests that quality is very much in the eye of the bestower of the franchise. It was almost as if the ITC first decided which group would best handle the new channel, then thought up convincing reasons for awarding it to them - rather as, in the period of decolonisation in the Sixties, the Colonial Office would devise electoral systems for former British territories that ensured that the "right" politicians won power.

Some regulation of television must remain, to ensure that material harmful to the young or otherwise vulnerable is not broadcast into their homes. There is no longer any logic, though, in rules that inhibit a television channel from maximising its audience - in other words from producing what most of us want to watch - in peak time.

The ITC is over-nannying us, warding off dangers that do not exist. The result of its survey on nudity suggests that more than half of viewers believe they are grown-up enough to decide what they want to watch for themselves, without the intervention of a venture capitalist, a media consultant and a Scottish earl. You do not have to be a libertine to agree.