In my opinion: Leslie Hill, chairman of ITV Network and Institute of Management companion, argues that out-of-date regulations threaten the quality of UK television

In my opinion: Leslie Hill, chairman of ITV Network and Institute of Management companion, argues that out-of-date regulations threaten the quality of UK television - What keeps me awake at night is the way the television industry's outdated regulatory re

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

What keeps me awake at night is the way the television industry's outdated regulatory regime is being applied to ITV - at a time when change is being driven rapidly by the convergence of broadcasting, computing and telecommunications technologies. Viewers can now see hundreds of channels via their aerial, satellite or cable. Include the internet, and access to programming from around the world is well-nigh unlimited.

ITV is the UK's oldest commercial broadcaster. Created in 1955, it enjoyed many years as the privileged member of a cosy duopoly alongside the BBC. The price of this privilege was a degree of regulatory interference in ITV's programming. Most viewers remain blissfully ignorant of the fact that ITV - unlike the BBC - is required by law to provide a minimum number of hours of programming each week in a whole range of programme genres, including news, arts and religion. It is nonsensical that ITV should be so much more tightly regulated in this way than the BBC and Channel 4. Unlike the ITV companies, the BBC and Channel 4 are not commercial businesses required to make profits.

This degree of regulation was bearable - and indeed justified - in a world where competition was strictly limited. But with the arrival of cable, satellite and digital technology in the 1990s, such regulation has become increasingly irrelevant and harmful. The privileges attached to ITV's position have been eroded as competition has intensified, but the level of regulation has remained the same for the past 10 years. In an industry marked by rapid change and swift decision-making, ITV is pinned down, Gulliver-like, by an intricate web of regulation, unable to respond effectively as new market entrants attack its audience share.

The debate over News at Ten is a case in point. As a direct result of the changes that have taken place in the television industry in the past decade, ITV's audience was declining fast. More than a quarter of its viewers were switching off at 10pm when the news came on. It would have been untenable for any commercial broadcasting organisation to ignore this level of viewer defection. ITV, whose finances depend on mass audiences, had to take action.

But the regulation that ITV faces made it exceptionally difficult to respond swiftly to this increased competition. First we had to apply to our regulator, the Independent Television Commission (ITC), for approval to move the news. Then we had to face an exhaustive public consultation exercise. In addition, the House of Commons select committee on culture, media and sports decided to wade into the debate by launching its own inquiry. In the small hours I mull over the fact that a select committee can be so narrowly focused, hearing only what it wants to hear.

The ITC gave us a fair hearing. Recognising that viewers would be ill served if the status quo continued, it took the difficult decision to allow ITV to move its peak-time news from 10pm to 6.30pm - the first big change to our evening schedule since 1967.

Ironically, instead of the ITC receiving plaudits from the politicians for acting as a responsible regulator - seeking to apply a lighter touch and ensure ITV's long-term survival - it has been persistently criticised for caving in to commercial pressure. The select committee has suggested that the ITC's days are numbered if it does not require ITV to reinstate News at Ten.

Of course politicians have a legitimate interest in news programmes. Impartial, high-quality TV news remains by far the preferred source of information for most of the population. But this debate has to be put in perspective. Even allowing for a drop in news viewers on ITV since the change (which we hope to reverse), more than 10 million people continue to get their news from ITV each day.

And the traditional news bulletin is no longer the only broadcast source of news and information. As well as plenty of news on radio, there are already two UK-based 24-hour news channels, and later this year ITN will launch a third. The BBC and ITN have launched news services on mobile telephones, and the internet provides yet another source.

The Government is aware that the regulatory environment needs to change and has announced plans for a new Communications Bill soon after the next election. But it faces a significant challenge in delivering a regulatory system capable of dealing with fast-converging technologies, each with different regulatory traditions.

To meet this challenge, politicians will need to acknowledge and understand the magnitude of the changes occurring in the industry and look beyond much of the current regulatory orthodoxy as power shifts to the viewer.

If they fail to do this, they run the risk of a declining domestic TV industry with less revenue for making programmes, and missing, once again, the opportunity to create major UK media companies capable of playing on the global stage. Most importantly, viewers will be the losers if the UK's domestic TV industry starts to decline.

Regulation of television in the UK has been too slow in adjusting to reality. Britain has some of the best television in the world, but I am kept awake at night because I know it is in danger.

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