U.K. Eases B’cast Regs To Ease Digital Entry

British TV stations are set for another period of mergers and takeovers after the government unveiled its revised legislation to relax cross-media ownership limits.

The new Broadcasting Bill, published Dec. 15, also contains amended proposals for the launch of 18 digital terrestrial TV channels as early as 1997.

These changes are designed to help the U.K’s existing TV networks, notably the BBC and ITV, put their weight more firmly behind the introduction of digital broadcasting.

As expected, the new rules on media ownership will allow much greater freedom for cross-control between newspaper groups and broadcasters.

This will open the door for ambitious medium-sized publishers such as Associated Newspapers and the Guardian to take over ITV stations, and the biggest ITV broadcasters, including Carlton, Granada and MAI, to add newspapers, smaller ITV stations or satellite channels to their empires.

But the two largest newspaper publishers, Rupert Murdoch’s News Intl. and the Mirror Group, will still be subject to the old restrictions because of the size of their readership.

Size is key

The bill introduces a radical system of calculating cross-media ownership according to audience share and readership size. This will replace the old system which placed limits on the number of stations one company could control, and the size of the broadcasting stakes which newspaper companies could own.

Thus, one company will now be allowed to own any number of ITV stations and satellite channels, up to a maximum 15% share of the TV audience. Previously, no company could control more than two ITV stations.

Also, newspaper companies with up to a 20% share of the national newspaper readership will now be free to control ITV stations up to the same 15% viewership limit, and vice versa.

Only News Intl. and the Mirror Group have more than 20% of national readership. That means they will still be limited to a maximum 20% stake in one ITV station, although they are free to own any number of cable or satellite channels. News Intl. is the biggest shareholder in British Sky Broadcasting, and the Mirror has its own cable channel, Live TV, along with a 20% stake in the ITV station Scottish TV.

On the digital front, the government will make available six frequencies, called “multi-plexes,” each of which contains room for three digital channels.

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