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Omar Oakes 

The week in media: it’s never been about the money

The week in media: it’s never been about the money

Money talks but can be deceptive, whether it's about the Government wanting to privatise Channel 4 or which companies are funding ISBA's ambitious Project Origin cross-media measurement initiative, writes the editor of Mediatel News.

Money is a strange thing – the more there is, the harder it is to appreciate as a real thing. Show someone a briefcase full of cash and they’re likely to be very interested, but throwing around sums that rhyme with “illions” seems so much colder and abstract.

So when the Government was condemned this week for only allocating £1.4 billion to schools to help children catch-up for lost learning during the pandemic, ministers felt able to point out that £1.4 billion is still a lot of money. It’s small compared to the £15 billion that education expert Kevan Collins said was needed, but when thinking about cash at these stratospheric levels, it becomes somewhat difficult for normies like me to viscerally appreciate.

The Government being apparently strapped for cash after spending unprecedented sums on Covid-19 responses will have myriad impacts on the media industry over the coming years.

This week, the word went out via The Times that the government is looking again at selling off Channel 4. John Whittingdale, now minister for broadcasting, remains a powerful voice in government and he was culture secretary in 2015 when talk of privatisation began to emerge.

As Raymond Snoddy wrote in his Wednesday column, “the case for privatisation was weak five years ago and is even weaker now, yet this time the threat is greater.”

The threat is greater because there is a stronger narrative to justify selling Channel 4 now.

Amid the flurry of media M&A activity, with Amazon buying MGM, AT&T spinning off WarnerMedia and merging it with Discovery, and now the New York Times reportedly in talks to buy sports content app The Athletic, there is a race among media giants to bulk up on content as subscription magnets.

So, the argument goes, Channel 4 will be at its highest market attractiveness just when the Government needs cash the most.

But that narrative ignores the fact that, as Snoddy reminds us, this government apparently does not like Channel 4 or Channel 4 News. Amid the breaking education row on Wednesday evening, 4 News presenter Cathy Newman wearily announced that Williamson has never once spoken to the programme during his 22-month stint as education secretary.

For a minister of state to treat a public broadcaster with such disdain – particularly with rumours swirling of a sell-off, is pathetic. Not as pathetic, mind you, as his £1.4 billion education catch-up fund, which breaks down to just an extra £50 per child (or an hour’s private tuition for those that can afford it).

What’s more, it shows that privatising Channel 4 is not, and has never been, about the money.

Nor is money at the root of the disputes that rumble on behind the scenes as ISBA prepares to unveil a prototype of its much-anticipated cross-media measurement tool, Project Origin.

As Mediatel News revealed today, ISBA is set to launch the first prototype of Origin later this month and has secured all of the major agency holding groups, as well as 25 advertisers, as funding partners to develop the tool.

Origin, which is being backed by dozens of UK advertisers and ISBA members, is an important initiative because brand marketers are crying out for the ability to measure media’s performance across linear TV, video-on-demand, YouTube, Facebook and advertising on the open web.

The broadcasters have been reluctant to fund Origin’s development, but as one senior commercial source told me, it’s the methodology, not the money, which is holding them back from being paid-up supporters. ITV, Channel 4 and Sky already pay for Barb to provide, trusted, independent industry measurement.

It’s therefore welcome that ISBA recognises this and is not effectively asking them to pay twice, since Barb data will be part of Origin.

It’s for YouTube (Google), Facebook and Amazon, whose video platforms have not been subject to the same independent scrutiny, to provide the same level of assurances for advertisers if there is to be a true cross-media standard that puts established and new media on a level playing field.

It’s not that the TV companies are not keen to solve this measurement issue – ITV and Channel 4 are set to join Sky’s CFlight platform in the coming months.

CFlight calculates de-duplicated audience reach for linear and video-on-demand, which should allow advertisers to make “one single media buy”, as Sky puts it.

While this collaboration could be game-changing, it doesn’t address the more existential problem TV faces. As ITV’s director of commercial strategy and trading Ben Allen warned this week, “content is unlikely to become cheaper and audiences are unlikely to increase”.

And that problem really does come down to money.

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