THE SIX men and four women of the Independent Television Commission are enjoying a busybody autumn. The variety of their decisions and pronouncements, from the assignment of a multi-million-pound franchise to probing the limits of nudity in advertising, illustrates the impressive range of powers they enjoy over what we see on our screens. Yet few viewers would be able to name any of them.
Last month they insisted that a Monday News at Ten could on no account be delayed for a quarter of an hour to accommodate an extra-long episode of Cracker. The cock-eyed outcome was to have Robbie Coltrane's feast of sex and violence switched to a Sunday, when for reasons long forgotten the ITC's rules on prime-time news are less strict.
Then, in the auction for the Channel 5 franchise, they disqualified the highest bidder, using their own mysterious criteria of "quality". By happy chance, the award went instead to the bid spearheaded by two pillars of the Independent Television establishment Greg Dyke, former managing director of LWT, and Lord Hollick, whose MAI group controls Anglia and Meridian, franchise holders for the lucrative East Anglian and southern England regions.
ITC members have also been defending us against corruption during commercial breaks. Last Thursday they published an 80-page research paper on nudity in advertising, concluding that some viewers are offended by naked flesh but most are not, while an insatiable 5 per cent, defined as "libertines", lust for more. A few days earlier, in their monthly review of misleading commercials, they had solemnly scolded the Post Office for implying that its network of foreign exchange counters was more extensive than it is - after only two outraged viewers had complained.
Who are these sages? The ITC has always been a classic quango, packed by the government of the day with placemen and placewomen commonly described as representing the Great and the Good but whose greatness, at least, is open to question. The chairman is Sir George Russell, once one of Margaret Thatcher's favourite industrialists and still chairman of three public companies. His deputy is Jocelyn Stevens, chairman of English Heritage and a former newspaper executive. The others are: Dr John Beynon, senior pro vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey; the Earl of Dalkeith, director of Buccleuch Estates; Roy Goddard, chairman of the Dyslexia Institute; Jude Goffe, venture capital adviser; Eleri Wynne Jones, psychotherapist; Pauline Mathias, chairman of the governors of St Felix School, Southwold; Dr Maria Maloney, marketing manager of Garland and Wolff plc; and John Ranelagh, media consultant.
It would be intriguing to eavesdrop on one of their meetings to discover how this motley group arrives at decisions. Many believe that the most influential voice is that of the senior staff officer, chief executive David Glencross, a veteran of the BBC in its paternalist days before the Birtian revolution. A zealous advocate of public service broadcasting, Glencross is for ever on the lookout for backsliding by the ITV companies. His fingerprints were all over the commission's unyielding insistence on the inviolability of the News at Ten's weekday time-slot against encroachment by anything except live football. …