ITV fate the focus at Edinburgh

Executives call for slashing of regulatory obligations

EDINBURGH -- The future of ITV dominated debate at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival, which wound down Sunday.

Despite a feel-good opening speech from ITV director of television Peter Fincham, talking up the future for mass-audience channels, gloom over the advertising climate and ITV's regulatory burden prompted a range of the broadcaster's executives to call for urgent action to slash its regulatory obligations.

During a panel discussion, ITV managing director Rupert Howell said the broadcaster would have to consider handing back its broadcast license if its quotas on regional programming were not cut back in the near future.

ITV also is waiting to hear from media regulator Ofcom as to whether the broadcaster can change the tariffs it charges for commercial airtime, in order to increase its revenue.

"ITV's public-service obligations need to be tapered from next year," Howell said. "If the gulf between the cost and benefit of holding these broadcast licenses widens, then (license) handback becomes inevitable."

He warned, though, that such action -- which would make ITV relaunch purely as a commercial channel, with no public-service obligations and no special advantages such as a guaranteed free-to-air digital spectrum -- would mean viewers would lose out.

Others questioned whether ITV executive chairman Michael Grade's vaunted "content-led strategy" would be enough to keep the broadcaster afloat.

"ITV is running up the down escalator," said David Elstein, chairman of private-equity-funded Sparrowhawk Media and a former chief executive of Five. "Blaming the regulator is a very old game. ITV's bigger problem is that they have no strategy to diversify revenue streams."

Elsewhere at the festival, the role of celebrities was put under the spotlight, and it seems British audiences can't get enough.

"I haven't been into any meeting with any commissioner at any channel where they haven't said, 'Get me a celebrity on this show,' " said Natalka Znak, controller of factual entertainment at ITV Prods.

Added "X-Factor" judge and reality star Sharon Osbourne, speaking on the same panel, "It's the same in advertising: They want a celebrity to advertise their product because it works."
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