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Opinion: That empty chair: A broadcaster backdown for good, honest commercial reasons

11 March 2015 | analyst insight

LIBERUM OPINION: Ian Whittaker, Liberum Media Analyst

Email Ian or call him on: +44 (0) 20 3100 2089

Ian Whittaker

Commercial factors will, I believe, force the UK’s broadcasters to give up their provocation to use an empty chair where an absent David Cameron should sit in the televised election debates. 

(Full background to this ongoing story is here

For the BBC, the obvious risk is over Royal Charter renewal and the structure of the licence fee. The bulk of the Conservative party and press already thinks the Corporation is a hotbed of metropolitan, Oxbridge lefties who hate Tories.  

Assume the Conservatives form the next government. In a bid to quell restive backbenchers in the run-up to a divisive and challenging EU referendum in 2017, the government may throw them a BBC bone.

Less commented on, though, is the risk for the commercial broadcasters.  

The government has just launched a review into whether the main commercial channels (ITV, Channel 4 and Five) can charge pay-TV operators for carriage of their channels. This may be a huge and very profitable source of new revenues for the broadcasters and a major cost for operators such as Sky.

So for the commercial broadcasters to empty-chair Cameron risks their positions in this debate.

The Conservatives would, of course, claim that whatever decision is  taken was impartial.

But Archie Norman, ITV's Chairman and ex-Conservative Party Chairman, has the sufficient political nous to know the risks.

Channel 4's bosses, meanwhile, would have the extra consideration of fuelling what it would see as an unwelcome privatisation debate.

But the broadcasters are standing together on this issue, no?

Well, the platforms tend not to sacrifice their own interests for the greater good (ITV CEO Adam Crozier recently blamed its weak performance in audience share partly on the BBC).

There is too much temptation for one broadcaster to break ranks.

There will be two other considerations for the broadcasters.

First, the Conservatives look to be edging into a sustained lead (ahead by 2 percentage points with YouGov this week) as Labour's Scottish problem appears to worsen. Betting on the Conservatives winning the most seats has tightened considerably over the last 24 hours.

Second, no one really seems to care about the debates. It is seen as a typical media elite debate that ‘luvvies’ and political hacks relish yet no one in the real world gives a damn about. Lord Ashcroft's findings seem to support this.

The broadcasters will sound tough for a few days to save face and then back down, blaming the PM and/or voter apathy on the issue.

1-0 to Cameron

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