Broadcast regulator Ofcom gives UK’s distorted TV airtime market a clean bill of health

One sometimes wonders if there’s anyone at all within the UK’s overlapping gaggle of regulators who understands anything at all about media sales.

Broadcast regulator Ofcom has given the UK’s TV airtime market a clean bill of health following a ‘consultation’ it began in June. This was supposed to look at whether the way TV advertising is bought and sold could prevent, restrict or distort competition.

“Having reviewed the evidence and submissions, we do not believe there is a strong case to suggest that there is significant detriment to consumers – whether TV viewers, advertisers or consumers of products advertised on TV,” Ofcom says. Ofcom will not therefore refer the airtime market for a full Competition Commission inquiry.

This follows an investigation by the Office of Fair Trading in February into the even more opaque outdoor market, which also found that there was nothing to worry about.

With TV in the UK the fact is that you cannot turn up, even with cash, and buy the spots you want in the programmes you want because these are the subject of share deals between media agencies and broadcasters. To trade effectively you need to be a member of a pretty small and exclusive club and, even if you are, you have to buy a load of stuff you don’t want to get the spots you do. So the system is skewed to help the big broadcasters keep prices high. Media agencies go along with it because it helps them attract clients – advertisers.

So clearly the system doesn’t work in advertisers’ interests. Neither does it actually work in the interests of viewers because, as nearly all the money is funnelled to the big broadcasters – because media agencies can’t be bothered with the others – the bar to real competition and therefore choice for viewers is raised impossibly high. Most independent rivals to the likes of ITV and Channel 4 simply can’t generate the ad revenue to make decent programmes.

But the clever young people at Ofcom think all this is OK. Perhaps it ought to hire some grizzled media veterans to tell it what really goes on.

You May Also Like

About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.