On the day the Independent Television Commission announced new ITV
licences, cutting pounds 90 million from the cash handed annually to the
Treasury, I attended a handily-timed media reception hosted by Gordon
The Chancellor had not yet caught up with the smallish dent in revenue
the ITC was about to cause him, but he had far more than money on his
mind. Instead he spoke fervently about his belief in improving society
by fusing the energy and skills of business people with charitable
The event was a key media example of what he meant, the start of a new
Visions competition to select 25 film makers to direct minute-long
campaigning infomercials about pressing social issues. These films are
guaranteed prime broadcasting airtime and can draw on support from
Gordon Brown spoke of the way Cathy Come Home, Tony Garnett’s TV film of
the 1960s highlighted the treatment of homeless families of his
generation, and how charities could seize the opportunity to bring about
reforms, by using TV to reach a wide audience. The key force in bridging
the gap was the Media Trust charity which hopes to use the digital
explosion to start a Community Channel next year.
If you had asked me which was the most suitable partner for such an
altruistic proposal, I would have said Channel 4. As a new Zenith Media
study shows, it is by far the richest UK broadcaster, making a profit
per employee of pounds 192,000 per year. Wrong. Fledgling Channel 5 is
the broadcasting partner. The exercise tempers its raucous image, and it
also underlines the shrewdness of CEO David Elstein, who is working with
the political grain of the times.
The event left me thinking about the social purpose of broadcasting. ITV
in particular should beware. In past weeks it’s been given two
opportunities to revise its schedules by removing news and, probably,
hard-hitting documentaries to the periphery, and to move forward through
the ITC’s new deal to a more rational licencing scheme. While the ITC
has not been particularly generous, it is offering a degree of security
by linking 75 per cent of the annual payments to fluctuating advertising
income. In other words, payments go down in bad years.
Carlton’s first director of programmes said that ITV in the 1990s did
not exist to get people out of jail (a dig at Granada World in Action’s
pursuit of injustice). But that lack of gritty campaigning programmes
may be a weakness.
The BBC, meanwhile, detects from its soundings a desire for programmes
reinforcing a sense of community. Its new restatement of basic
principles published this week also underlines its essential public
But all broadcasters must tend to their image and obligations, beyond a
pure mechanical compliance with a licence.