The Independent Television Commission (ITC) was established by the UK Government and is funded by the UK's commercial television broadcasters to regulate their own output. They award franchises; licences to broadcast, to potential commercial television companies in an auction-style bidding process. An ITV franchise is (or used to be) considered a 'licence to print money'.
They regulate the following:
The Independent Television Network (ITV); Channel Four; Channel Five; British Sky Broadcasting; (BSkyB). In fact all commercial TV in the UK.
The ITC succeeded the IBA (the Independent Broadcasting Authority), after Parliament passed the Broadcasting Act of 1990. The old IBA was more powerful than its successor, able to preview, censor or ban programmes if considered necessary. The ITC on the other hand can only act in retrospect (broadcast and be damned) and even then, its powers are limited.
'Death on the Rock' was a documentary produced as an edition of the ITV series 'This Week' produced by Thames Television. It was a piece of investigative journalism into the incident on Gibraltar. The SAS had killed three members of the IRA in the street, on a Sunday morning in 1988.
Before the inquest, Geoffrey Howe, the Conservative foreign secretary wrote to the IBA to pull the programme from the schedules, fearing that it would skew the course of justice.
The programme alleged that this was an execution in cold blood, causing controversy by suggesting with witnesses and experts that the SAS didn't attempt to arrest the IRA members or issue any warnings.
But Howe was unsuccessful. The IBA said it was in the interests of free speech to show this investigative programme. The programme was broadcast and caused a stir in the Government-friendly national newspapers as to its credibility. An independent inquiry into the production was conducted, but nothing dubious was found at Thames Television. The Government was now angry with Thames and the IBA.
Not long after this, the IBA was dissolved by the Government and replaced with the weaker ITC. Thames lost the right to broadcast on ITV and the new ITC gave their franchise to Carlton.
Revenge is sweet... and it takes time.
Today, the ITC continues in its capacity as watchdog constantly monitoring taste and decency; impartiality in news, misleading and offensive advertising and content harmful to children. They exist to serve the interests of the viewer by setting a standard of quality. They have a 'quality threshold' which they use to judge programme 'quality', diversity and regionality in order to maintain high standards.
Hang on, just how do you measure the 'quality' of something?
Anyway, if a broadcaster shows a programme that falls short of this qualitative yardstick, they get penalised by the ITC. They see that the broadcaster widens choice and produces innovative shows. They also deal with viewer complaints.
They have technical considerations too, in terms of allocating frequencies to broadcasters.
They also act like the Competition Commission when franchise holders buy up other broadcasters. This situation is about become interesting because on the first of January 2004, the ITC will merge with a number of other media regulators, to form an uber-quango called 'Ofcom'. A merger already occured between two ITV franchise holders - Granada and Carlton, they now own ITV between them. Arguably good for ITV in this multi-channel marketplace. Mind you, they did screw up their digital venture.
But now we face one giant UK media regulator of telecommunication, TV, internet; the balls of which are cradled dangerously yet tenderly in the leathery talons of the beast that is Ofcom.