Bring on the Yankee vandals

Observations on the TV merger

The ITV merger waved through on 7 October comes hot on the heels of a Communications Act that exposes the new £4.5bn giant to the threat of foreign takeover. Already, American media monsters such as Viacom (the owner of MTV, Paramount, CBS and Blockbusters) are circling, scenting their first chance of a real bridgehead in mainstream European telly.

Is the mighty cultural force that once gave us Brideshead Revisited and still gives us Coronation Street in danger of falling prey to transatlantic barbarism? This is certainly the luvvy establishment view, expressed most forcefully by the BBC's director general, Greg Dyke, who alleged at a recent gathering of TV big-wigs that ownership relaxation had been imposed on a properly reluctant Department for Culture, Media and Sport by a sinister-sounding clique at No 10. As the Communications Bill went through the Lords this summer, media greybeards led by Lord Puttnam chilled peers' blood with tales of the appalling Yankee trash that might soon be filling our screens.

Mere viewers can be forgiven for being puzzled. Surely many of the best shows on the box, such as Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, ER, The Simpsons and Sex and the City, already come from America. And would Dyke really want Brits to stay in charge of his principal competitor if they were the best people for the job? Certainly he can thank them for giving him a clear run of late. The current, very British, managers of ITV squandered £1bn on the ITV Digital fiasco. While obsessed with this doomed venture, they lost sight of their real business and allowed ITV to plunge into such a decline that, after decades as Britain's leading channel, it is now regularly trounced in the ratings by BBC1. Such triumphs as ITV has managed (Pop Idol, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?) have often been bought in from outside. More typical of its own current cultural achievements is Gardeners From Hell.

Britain's TV establishment would have you believe that ITV's public service content (news, religion, children's programmes and so on) springs from the deep personal commitment of the service's British bosses. In fact, such worthy output as ITV currently manages is the product not of sentiment but of a regulatory regime that imposes obligations on Britain's commercial broadcasters. American businessmen have a tradition of respecting regulatory demands in the interests of good business, and could be expected to discharge their public service responsibilities enthusiastically to keep our regulators happy. ITV's current managers, on the other hand, try to get round the rules wherever they can. Obligatory current affairs, for example, turns out to be Tonight With Trevor McDonald.

Despite the glum warnings of TV vested interests, global media giants do not see overseas markets as places to dump sub-standard material produced for their domestic audiences. They want to succeed, and they know the only way of doing that is to offer local audiences locally made and high-quality output - as Disney, for example, has demonstrated in Asia. In Britain, they would probably fuel a much-needed creative resurgence.

So the Yanks are coming? The sooner the better.

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