MEDIA: Is the ITC’s cautious path ignoring the bigger picture?,

This week will stick in my mind as one of those rare occasions when it was possible to take a rain check on the gradual 1990s slide into commercialism by British television before the digital revolution really strikes home.

This week will stick in my mind as one of those rare occasions when it

was possible to take a rain check on the gradual 1990s slide into

commercialism by British television before the digital revolution really

strikes home.



I spent an enlightening day shuttling between the grey Independent

Television Commission, which published its typically pragmatic proposals

to liberalise programme sponsorship and the London Palladium, where ITV

attempted to dazzle advertisers with its pounds 800 million 1997

schedule. Caution versus champagne-fuelled hard sell.



In 1990, when the door was first opened to sponsorship - resulting in

sweet little logos from Powergen on the national weather reports - the

ITC’s main priority was to protect the integrity of programmes on ITV

and Channel 4.



That impulse remains at the heart of the new proposals. Many

unenforceable controls have been dropped, such as whether the

merchandising or the programme idea came first. Newscasters will be

allowed to read sponsored weather reports from next February. But the

ITC still sees terrestrial broadcasting as requiring higher standards

than satellite and cable because of its hold on 90 per cent of viewing.



There is no move towards a level playing field. Both sides are evolving

into ever more commercially-driven channels, but at different paces. The

proposed freedom for magazine publishers to translate their niches into

branded programmes and for companies such as Texas Home Care to run a

DIY service, followed by adverts for its products, applies only to cable

and satellite. This is because the ITC believes that the slots for

traditional broadcaster-generated lifestyle programming remain so few,

that new sponsors could kill them off - while niche satellite channels

need help. It clearly also judges that the public is ready for a bolder

use of sponsorship: Cadbury is sponsoring Coronation Street and recent

research showed only eight per cent of viewers actively dislike on-

screen credits.



What is impossible to evaluate is whether corporate sponsors have kept,

tactfully, in their place. Have the publicised failures to influence

programme content and presenters been exceptional, or simply the ones to

hit the headlines? Considering the relatively small sums of money

currently flowing into sponsorship - pounds 21 million into ITV and

Channel 4 last year - it seems unlikely that there have been major

abuses on the main channels, so far.



Tinkering with sponsorship seems a minor game when set against ITV’s

1997 launch. It is planning a massive promotional campaign to see off

Channel 5 and swamp BBC1. Its executives talk of dramas with maximum

ratings sensations and soap operas as ‘super brands’. The wind of

commercial change was really blowing fiercely through the Palladium. It

felt very chilly.



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