National Heritage Secretary Peter Brooke met Monday with chiefs of the 14 regional ITV stations to hear their arguments for and against a relaxation of the cross-ownership restrictions within the network.

Both sides of the debate emerged declaring their satisfaction with the meeting, while Brooke himself issued a guarded statement that gave little hint of his conclusions.

It has been, said the government minister, “an instructive and valuable exercise.” He said he had “noted the views expressed and will reflect upon them.”

The biggest ITV companies, including Central TV, Carlton TV and LWT, want the rules changed to allow mergers between the nine stations defined as “large” under current legislation.

They argue that this would allow the network to cut costs and invest more money in programming. At the moment they are restricted to a maximum 20% stake in each other.

But some smaller ITV stations, such as HTV and Meridian, believe that relaxing the merger rules would threaten the regional identity of the ITV network.

Central’s Leslie Hill said that the supporters of change had put their case effectively, and observed, “It makes sense to cut out costs so that regional program services can be protected.”

Carlton’s Michael Green estimated that “70% of ITV” supported the case for a change in the rules at the meeting. “The Secretary of State certainly heard this loud and clear. The minority are looking for protectionism, which is always a short-term answer.”

But HTV sources said, “Brooke heard no compelling arguments for why he should change the status quo — only the usual spurious stuff about saving on overheads and mergers giving greater protection from takeover by European companies.”

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