Monkey business 

1 June 2002 tbs.pm/1818

ITV has been through possibly the roughest twelve months of its existence since the birth of independent television in 1955; if ever there was an “annus horribilis” for ITV then this past year would surely count for one.

It’s true that Independent Television/ITV has had substantial crises in the past but they have been temporary affairs – the resilience of the ITV network combined with the loyalty of the viewers had conspired to make any trauma periods relatively short-lived. This time, the ITV name has been dragged through the hedge (so to speak) and it seems that nothing short of a miracle is required to ensure a return to the glory years of the past. Although the ITV Digital fiasco shouldn’t be blamed solely for the current mess both Carlton and Granada are presently in, it is important.

All fall down

But why is ITV Digital so important and what conclusions can people draw from the demise of the monkey and its organ grinder? It is a known fact that both Carlton and Granada – though Carlton more so than Granada – have been paranoid about the possible effects that SkyDigital and its wide channel choice would have on their advertising revenues. There is some justification for this fear, based on the fact that advertisers only have so much money to spend on advertising and it is often split across various media forms including posters, magazine ads and sponsorship deals.

More TV channels provide the means for advertisers to target ads towards smaller but more specialised audiences, meaning that (for example) it is now possible to spend less on getting Playstation ads shown on TV. They will be viewed by far less people than the terrestrial channels, but by way of compensation the people watching are supposedly of a type more inclined to buy the product in question depending on which niche channel has been chosen.

Very importantly this “niche promotion spending” often results in a lower proportion of the money that a company (such as Sony) has set aside for TV advertising being spent with ITV. Both Carlton and Granada had their eye on this market, so they seized the opportunity through ONdigital to try to establish a rival pay-TV service that would depend on subscriptions from families who didn’t want masses of channels or a dish on the side of the house.

Into the red

Unfortunately there were too few people who could either benefit from the digital terrestrial service due to terrestrial coverage restrictions, plus many people were either reluctant to subscribe to any pay channels or alternatively opted for Sky’s service with even more channels and better coverage. So, despite a last ditch rebrand as ITV Digital and a desperate bid for Football League (non-Premiership) rights, which failed financially and ended in legal action, the resulting financial crisis forced ITV Digital into administration.

All these events were a key distraction for Carlton and Granada, since ITV was left to ‘coast along’ for over three years with no real investment or commitment to ITV’s programming. This, combined with bad management and deregulation, has made the situation far more critical than it should have been. It is arguable that ITV has been in decline since the early 1990s and especially from 1993 onwards when one of the big five contractors (Thames). Many Thames-produced programmes such as The Bill and Wish You Were Here continued to appear, but what was left of Thames was far less able to have new ideas commissioned and was left at the mercy of free market forces, eventually meeting a fate as the main TV subsidiary brand of Fremantle Media.

This caused a vacuum at the heart of ITV because its successor Carlton seemed incapable of delivering anything like the much-praised output that Thames was responsible for, and it was many years (and the acquisition of Central) before Carlton started to get its act together. Carlton’s output may still “lack imagination” but that criticism could be equally drawn against Granada Media, though more pertinently the overall lack of imagination can be blamed on what gets commissioned for network productions.

And there lies a fundamental problem with ITV. Back in the days when the franchises were separately owned, each franchise was independent of each other but each was big enough in most cases to produce a wide range of programmes which not only reflected varying regional tastes but reflected the character of the companies themselves.

Consolidation

Now that all of the English franchises are owned by two companies and regional productions are now only done as a sideline to keep the regulators happy, there is precious little produced on a regional basis apart from low budget niche productions aimed at that uncompetitive slot opposite EastEnders that may only be of interest to viewers in a specific region. Or alternatively they are cheaply produced niche market (e.g. motoring) programmes that are passed around from region to region.

Either way, there are not the big budget regional programmes being produced that sometimes ended up being shown during primetime slots on the network, giving much needed character and variety. It may be arguable that independent production companies have replaced large regional franchises as the main source of creativity in television. But these independent companies often lack the production resources required for large projects and the larger independents are now often owned by large media groups, which sometimes means even less creativity as a result.

The bottom line is that through unhindered mergers and acquisitions, Carlton and Granada now have an unhealthily strong bond with ITV1 as a channel, so their shareholders can now collectively exert pressure over a large part of ITV as a whole. The share price of both Carlton and Granada is now strongly affected by the fortunes of the channel as well as the popularity of individual programmes, which of course impacts on the schedule as well as most of the programmes.

The planned ITV1 rebranding that will take place this October will essentially mean that regionalism will be marginalised even further; indeed the whole ‘messy’ concept of regionalism would probably be ditched altogether if there wasn’t a statutory commitment to provide it in some form or another.

Five to Three

David Liddiment was forced to step down as ITV’s controller of programmes this year as a result of the ITV Digital fiasco. He blames being the man in the middle of the tussle between Carlton and Granada, but it is arguable that he should have tried harder not to let Carlton and Granada exert so much pressure over the network as a whole. A woman who is being courted to take over his role is Dawn Airey, who is the chief executive of Channel 5 (which, incidentally, has just rebranded itself as simply “Five”).

If Airey decides to join ITV, she may decide to take various key personnel from Five in order to assist her. Granada and Carlton want her because of the way she has boosted Five’s audience figures. All she actually did was to regularly promote the one quality import that Five has (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation) in various broadsheet newspapers, combined with tactical scheduling of various programmes including cheaply produced arts offerings. If you think about it carefully, what she did at Five isn’t exactly rocket science, but there’s a fundamental difference between ITV and Five that will have to be resolved. ITV was battling to keep the viewers it had from defecting, whereas Five was simply after any passing viewers it could pick up and was ditching its downmarket image of soft porn, films and football.

It is strongly arguable that ITV has vastly overestimated the loyalty of its viewers, and its reliance on old favourites was indicative of a policy of hanging on to loyal viewers by serving up repetitive helpings of soaps (Emmerdale, Coronation Street, The Bill, Crossroads) or soppy drama (Heartbeat, Where the Heart Is, Peak Practice), quiz shows (Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, Blind Date, Michael Barrymore’s My Kind of Music, Bruce’s Price is Right), makeovers and “reality” TV (Carol Vorderman’s Better Homes, Neighbours/Holidays from Hell), docusoaps such as Airport/Popstars/Pop Idol, and detective drama such as Midsomer Murders and A Touch of Frost.

What goes around

Although many of these programmes are undeniably popular and have a rightful place in the schedules of ITV (the ITV of forty years ago had its fair share of tacky and downmarket quizzes and other shows), the current schedules are dangerously unbalanced in comparison to years gone by. Serious current affairs such as World In Action (axed by Liddiment) and This Week (died with Thames) has all but vanished. Interest may have waned for this sort of thing, but that could be attributed to a gradual “dumbing down” that has taken place over time. And innovation has often been sidelined to either off-peak slots or given brief runs before being axed due to “commercial pressures”.

Today’s ITV may choose to devote itself almost entirely to mass market, bland and easily digested product, but viewers can and do get easily bored with too much of the same thing. ITV has been temporarily propped up with the success of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and Popstars/Pop Idol, but viewers are tuning in for these programmes only to tune away afterwards, and the former is now in steady decline with “specials” now being used in an attempt to preserve the format’s longevity.

So what next for ITV? In the short term there will be changes such as the sprucing up of Blind Date (taking on elements of other successes such as The Weakest Link whilst avoiding charges of plagarism) and the replacement of Where The Heart Is by the superficially similar Sweet Medicine, to name but two, as well as the long-promised presentation revamp.

But the presentation revamp (if early indications are correct) seems to be majoring on the exact attributes that have caused ITV to decline so far, with idents stressing the same old “personalities” (Cilla Black, Michael Barrymore, ad nauseum) and image that have caused ITV’s ratings to stumble badly in recent years through overuse and overfamiliarity. Unless David Liddiment’s successor can take the bull by the horns and deliver a more balanced yet commercially viable schedule, ITV’s decline will continue to hasten until only the hardcore soap addicts and lazy/bored people are left watching. Which is bad news for viewers, advertisers and shareholders alike.

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