Raymond Snoddy on media: Freeview has the chance to make 2005 its own

This time last year there was at least the theoretical possibility that someone would make a dazzling swoop for ITV on the morning of 29 December, when Ofcom took on its new powers.

The new regulator was so mindful about what might happen that chief executive Stephen Carter even brushed the stuffing crumbs off his chin and came in to the office - just in case.

Alas, this time around there is no need to man the phones on ITV's behalf.

Leaving the plummeting dollar aside, the sad truth is that no one will be able to muster enough enthusiasm to launch a bid for ITV this year.

As the smart money chases serious business opportunities such as mobile phone ringtones, ITV will be left to get on with it - celebrating its 50th anniversary by seeing how many more of its public service obligations it can get away with ditching.

At least as the old year faded Ofcom managed to demonstrate, at long last, that somewhere alongside the reams of consultation documents it can, just occasionally, muster a sense of humour. How else can one describe giving the Edinburgh commercial radio licence to that exemplar of public service, Kelvin MacKenzie? The wonder is that Kelvin had time to put a licence application together, given the amount of time and money he was devoting to his obviously hopeless High Court case against Rajar and the rest of the radio industry. More such follies cannot be ruled out this year.

Further attention will be devoted to the BBC this year. A grudging acceptance is emerging - even within the Corporation - that an 1100-strong human resources department could no longer be tolerated. But as things stand, there are two areas where Mark Thompson is in danger of going too far.

He demands programme excellence. While excellence is about creativity and technology is reducing some of the costs of programme-making, a crude, across-the-board 15% cut in programming costs is too severe and could prove counter-productive.

There is a second serious flaw. BBC Broadcast and BBC Resources have been carelessly lumped together as candidates for privatisation. While Broadcast, which already carries out channel play-out services for dozens of commercial channels, is an obvious target for Rupert Gavin's ambitions, BBC Resources should not be.

If Thompson is serious about programme excellence, then he should keep control of the craftsmen and women who operate the cameras, editing suites and outside broadcast. If they are privatised, where exactly is the next generation of craft skills in broadcasting going to come from? Some limits need to be set this year to the over-appeasement of an increasingly discredited government.

Once the dust settles, 2005 will be seen as The Year of Freeview. With 5m set-top boxes already out there, we will see if Freeview sales really can reach 8m before the year is out. The likelihood is that as prices continue to fall, the numbers will at least get close. Sales of 8m would be of more than symbolic importance. It would prove that Freeview is a serious destination for better-quality free-to-air channels, as Channel 4 chief executive Andy Duncan is well-placed to recognise.

It would also define, in a socially useful way, the limit of Sky's expansion. For James Murdoch, 2005 could prove to be a year of wading his way across a difficult plateau - the year in which Sky's growth really begins to falter, despite all the well-meaning ads illustrating the joys of Discovery.

He will have to face the fact that although 80% of Americans sign up for pay TV, Brits may resist more stubbornly.

But do not despair. This happy new year will have more than its share of idiocies and cock-ups to amuse us - and just as many unexpected transformations.

30 SECONDS ON ... OFCOM'S 2004

- January: Ofcom announces a 'fundamental review' of UK broadcasting. David Connolly, the airtime market adjudicator appointed to oversee Contract Rights Renewal, the mechanism designed to stop ITV abusing its airtime monopoly, outlines the boundaries of acceptability.

- April: Ofcom begins consultation on the future of public-service broadcasting, focusing on funding. One idea is that all channels should be able to apply for public funding to make quality programming.

- November: despite heavy pressure for it to intervene in the regulation of alcohol and food advertising, Ofcom starts transferring responsibility for broadcast ad content to the Advertising Standards Authority.

- December: Ofcom expresses its satisfaction with its first year. Digital switchover emerges as its principal issue for 2005.


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