The current Channel 3 licences run out in just over two-and-a-half years time. In return for its guaranteed position on slot 3 or 103, ITV has a number of public service obligations. It also faces some restrictions which do not apply to other broadcasters.
Since the ITV franchise round of 1991 the ecology of broadcasting has changed out of all recognition. And since the current licences were renewed eight years ago, online services have continued to grow in popularity.
There is a balancing act. On the one hand there is the question of the value of slot 3 and what can be done to ensure public service content can easily be found online with guaranteed prominence.
On the other hand there is the question of what a broadcaster can be compelled to do in return for these privileges. Ask too much and a special status is not worth it.
ITV’s commitments at present are mixed. It has a commitment to a high level of original production. However most of that is in its commercial interests too. It is the reason ITV attracts mass audiences.
It has a commitment to make a large number of programmes outside London. But the powerhouse of ITV Studios in Salford makes this seem secure too. Emmerdale in Leeds is also a secure part of the schedule.
Any significant move away from national news provision would also do huge damage to the company’s corporate reputation.
Once again, the inevitable question is whether the current level of regional news provision – and other regional output in Wales and Northern Ireland – is sustainable long-term.
And is it still fair to expect ITV and Channel 5 to carry fewer adverts than other commercial channels by statute?
Every obligation ITV carries will be up for discussion. Some though seem more sustainable than others or may actually be in the company’s commercial interests foo.
It is 99.9% certain agreement will be reached but let’s suppose ITV really did give up on public service broadcasting.
The channel – minus some legal obligations – would simply continue elsewhere on the EPG.
No doubt there would be debate over what could happen to slot 3 but even if there was some sort of competitive process it would not be like a franchise round.
ITV and virtually all its content would continue elsewhere. Whoever took slot 3 would not be showing Coronation Street.
A young pres fan back in the day – or someone who is too young to remember franchise rounds – may see them in terms of idents and logos. They were actually difficult and sometimes painful processes.
In 1968 and 1982 they led to many people changing jobs or moving round the country. But they also allowed the ITA or IBA to make positive improvements to the system or deal with problems. The 1991 round led to huge job losses and arguably inferior services.
Franchise rounds of one sort or another were necessary to decide who had access to a scarce commodity – the only commercial channel in the country. Today it is not a scarce commodity.
The important thing is to ensure Britain’s main commercial channel still invests in top quality productions, plays a part in informing the public and does things which may not be in its short-term commercial interest.
None of that is easy for Ofcom or the government.
PICTURED: ITV break bumper. COPYRIGHT: ITV plc.