Marital bliss a good way off for ITV firms

Marital bliss a good way off for ITV firms

It is hard to leave the subject of ITV alone at the moment, so I won't. The Network Centre must surely be in line for a nomination at next year's Baftas with its latest dramatic creation - produced entirely inhouse of course.

The performance being staged by Carlton and Granada is rather like a Steinbeck novel: against a background of biting depression, two families, used to being at each other's throats, struggle to come to terms with the fact that only by the marriage of their most eligible offspring will they survive. But the whole shooting matching depends on permission from bad old Uncle Tony, who's got bigger fish to fry.

In appealing directly for permission to wed, the house of Carlton believes the house of Granada has revealed its own, and, by default, both families', vulnerability. A cardinal sin, especially when things are pretty tight what with an advertising recession and an expensive prodigal son (ONdigital) and all.

So it's easy to understand Carlton chief executive Gerry Murphy's irritation that Granada's chairman, Charles Allen, should choose to reveal his feelings about the delay to the Communications Bill so openly in a letter (private or not) to the Prime Minister.

Carlton is of the view that the delay to a Communications Bill, allowing the relaxation of cross-media ownership rules implied in last week's Queen's Speech, was not a surprise. The lack of any specifics on this point in the White Paper was surely indication enough that there would be some delay. Carlton also, quite rightly, points to the media industry's place in the bigger economic and social picture. Blair is hardly likely to give over valuable Parliamentary time to a major piece of media legislation when the Government has such a huge tranche of business reforming public services, which is much more of a political priority.

Not only that, but Carlton and Granada will be prevented merging, regardless of ownership regulations, by the general monopoly rules for business enforced by the Competition Commission. That situation will not change before the end of 2003, by which time the Communications Bill will almost certainly have been introduced.

That doesn't mean Granada isn't right to be concerned that it could be snapped up by a foreign entity before a "Great British" ITV can be born.

So, is the engagement off? It's unlikely as both have too much at stake in ONdigital, the ITV Sports channel and, indeed, the creation of ITV Digital, itself under which both companies are working feverishly to maximize cost-saving by bringing together everything they can within the law.

Murphy's admonishment of Allen is perhaps as much to do with Carlton reminding Granada's senior management and the City that it has an equal say when it comes to agenda setting. Rather than washing the dirty laundry in public, both companies would perhaps do better to knuckle down to the real job of solving the growing problems at ONdigital and selling ads on ITV.

Carlton and Granada should also consider bringing their public relations departments together because, one thing's for sure, if they do aim to get married once they finally reach the age of consent, they'll have to start singing from the same hymn sheet.

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