Raymond Snoddy on media - Last rites for C4 merger with Five are ringing out

It's time to hold a wake for a very bad idea - the proposed merger of Five and Channel 4. Some people may wonder whether this is a bit premature for something that has not been officially declared dead. But even if there is still a slight flutter of a heartbeat, believe me, the idea is well and truly dead.

The official line at the Edinburgh Television Festival was that a merger was still an option - a line stuck to grimly both by Five chief executive Jane Lighting and her recently appointed counterpart at Channel 4, Andy Duncan. Asked directly if merger talks were now officially at an end, Duncan replied 'No'. But then he always was a polite man and clearly didn't wanted to put the noses of current and previous bosses out of joint quite so soon after taking over.

Despite the reluctance to admit it officially, you could see the life draining out of the idea across the span of the Festival as talk about one of the most outrageous wheezes in recent times came up in various sessions.

The most popular question was how exactly could a not-for-profit organisation be run alongside a wholly commercial one? The answer came in an admission that there were indeed many issues that would require attention before such a deal was done.

Lighting even went so far as to warn that conversations on the subject had not got nearly as far as most people apparently believed. That is probably media-speak for 'mentioned in passing over two lunches'.

Her RTL boss Gerhard Zeiler might have shed some light on the matter in his Worldview address at Edinburgh, but unfortunately he had flu and was unable to attend.

ITV chief executive Charles Allen joined in the fun with a bit of technical marketing expertise. He didn't see how Channel 4, which charges an advertising premium for its 16- to 34-year old viewers, could merge with an outfit that sells the demographic at a discount.

Edinburgh is such a media hothouse that an idea can be launched on a Friday, go on an upward trajectory through Saturday, but fall completely flat on Sunday. In the case of the Five/Channel 4 merger, which has been attracting headlines for the past six months, all that was missing was the coup de grace.

But before the curtains had been drawn on the merger and with almost indecent haste, talk of a new coupling was up and running. Duncan, the former BBC marketing director, is already looking for a tie-up between his channel and the BBC. Hacks who, just a moment ago, had been excited by the Five/Channel 4 situation quickly become overexcited at the prospect of a merger between parts of the BBC and Channel 4.

Such a liaison would make far more sense than anything involving Five.

Although Channel 4 has commercial funding and instincts, ultimately, its reason for existence is not dissimilar to the BBC's.

It is more difficult to envisage what they could do together. A merger of programme sales, other commercial activities or even educational programming are possibilities. Conveniently Channel 4's head of education is Heather Rabbatts - a former BBC governor. And Michael Grade, the BBC chairman and ex-Channel 4 chief executive, wondered recently if it would be possible to come up with anything of substance.

But it is indecent to be having this conversation around the deathbed while there is still life of sorts in the Five/Channel 4 merger. But make no mistake, it is only a matter of time.

A government source, commenting on all the talk of a Channel 4/Five merger, noted recently: 'It would require primary legislation and there is neither the time nor the appetite for it.' So let's raise a glass to an idea whose time really has come and gone.


- It was reported in February that the two channels had held informal talks about merging their advertising sales resources to compete with a single ITV.

- The idea did not go down well with the media community. One of the originators of Channel 4, former TV producer-turned president of Magdalen College, Oxford, Anthony Smith called it 'sad and bad', doubting that a commercial channel could be combined with a not-for-profit channel. Vice-chairman of Weber Shandwick and Liberal Democrat peer Lord McNally said the tie-up would be 'like a version of The Odd Couple'.

- But it made the City excited. Talking to The Guardian, Paul Richards, an analyst at Numis Securities, said bankers 'would jump at the chance of doing a high-profile, glamorous creative deal like this'.


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