EDITORIAL: ITV adopts a wait and see approach to the White Paper

In the week that the Communications White Paper is published by the government, it is interesting to observe how much 'noise' is being generated by the BBC and how strangely quiet ITV has temporarily become.

In the week that the Communications White Paper is published by the government, it is interesting to observe how much 'noise' is being generated by the BBC and how strangely quiet ITV has temporarily become.

Executives at Network Centre must be sniggering - quietly and presumably into their sleeves - as, each day, the BBC hits the headlines for all the wrong reasons. The White Paper, which until this week still carried the prefix 'much anticipated' despite the number of leaked stories, will propose an ombudsman system that for the first time hands an outside body regulatory power over the BBC board of governors.

This, of course, will not please the board of governors, who have been battling hard to retain control over the BBC's editorial independence.

But they should breathe a collective sigh of relief at what restrictions could have befallen them, had the White Paper not come so close to an election year.

Elsewhere this week, the BBC announced that it is to spend pounds 100m on original children's programming - twice the amount it spent previously and a precursor to the launch of two dedicated channels next year. Not surprisingly, this has led to attacks from rival children's broadcasters such as Nickelodeon and The Disney Channel, which are lobbying hard ahead of the required approval or otherwise of culture secretary Chris Smith in the new year.

In turn, the BBC is posturing as the provider of a quality alternative to a multi-channel diet of imported US cartoons and sitcoms.

In a similar vein, the corporation is pledging to put itself back on the sporting map by recapturing rights to England Six Nation rugby matches and Premiership football highlights. The content will feed, and to an extent be paid for by, a subscription-based sports channel that the BBC proposes to launch before the end of next year. And again approval must come from Smith, who will insist there is no cross subsidy for the channel from licence fee-funded services.

Perhaps the BBC has decided the best policy is to play the regulatory game with all its cards face up on the table. Perhaps it has spotted a more likely victory in the White Paper's wider definition of public service television.

Either way, its current dominance of headlines has given ITV and the advertising-funded channels a respite as they await and digest proposals in the White Paper on relaxation of ITV audience share limits, or on cross-media ownership.

Commercial media owners could see a very promising White Paper, while viewers will be the beneficiaries of proposals on regulation and public service broadcasting. For the moment, advertiser needs are taking a back seat - but with the legislation not due to be enacted until 2002 or 2003, there are many battles still to be fought.


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