How to save ITV 

30 September 2005 tbs.pm/2079

“The People’s Channel” is off-course and heading downstream to disaster. What’s needed is a regulator with a firm hand on the tiller, and an Act to sail her by.

ITV, especially ITV1, is in crisis. Ratings for ITV1 have on one occasion fallen to 16 per cent and the station often struggles to reach 20 per cent of the audience. Obviously, there is far more competition than in the station’s glory days, when it regularly achieved 50 per cent of the audience, but even going back ten years, when satellite television was well established, ITV was still achieving a 35 per cent share. Effectively in ten years ITV audiences have halved, while audiences for rival BBC One have only fallen from 30 per cent to 24 per cent. ITV1 logically should still be taking 30 per cent of the audience. What has gone wrong with, to quote Melvyn Bragg, “the people’s channel”?

The near-destruction of regional ITV is surely one of the main culprits. Everything ITV makes for the network, barring the 25 per cent of programmes acquired from the independents, is either made in London, Manchester or, to a lesser extent, Leeds, with a few programmes bought in from the fiercely independent STV, which has refused to join ITV plc, still has its own idents and therefore carries more respect in its region than the emasculated regions in England and Wales. Famous regional production centres like the former ATV Centre in Birmingham and the Nottingham Central studios have been closed, with Central reduced to little more than a news service, while middle-ranking companies like Tyne Tees, Meridian and ITV1 Wales (the former HTV) no longer contribute to the network. It is ironic that the BBC regions, often regarded as a joke in the seventies, now produce more than once-huge ITV stations like Central. Indeed Charles Allan, in a recent interview, seemed almost delighted that the old regional ITV had been destroyed.

Going back to the seventies, ITV’s strength was in its regionalism. Unlike the London-centric BBC, the majority of ITV programmes came from its various regions outside London. Each of the regions had its own specialities. Granada, often referred to as “the BBC of the North”, lived up to its reputation for producing the sort of programming more associated with the BBC, such as current affairs programmes like “World in Action”, lavish dramas like “Brideshead Revisited”, and groundbreaking music programmes like “So It Goes”, which helped to break punk rock. ATV, under Lew Grade, concentrated more on lavish light entertainment, but also produced Hollywood blockbuster type dramas such as “Jesus of Nazareth” as well as being a principal producer of schools programmes. Smaller regions such as Tyne Tees specialised in youth programming and children’s programmes, while even my own ITV station Border became known nationally for “Mr and Mrs”, hosted by Border’s director of programmes, Derek Batey. Typically viewers to a nighttime of ITV programmes could see shows produced in Carlisle, London, Leeds, Newcastle, Birmingham and Manchester.

At a local level, the ITV companies also carried a huge amount of respect, especially the smaller regions like Westward and Border. Westward was so popular in the South West that even 24 years after it disappeared people still say, “What’s on Westward?” Border Television, despite being parochial and dull at times, enjoyed the highest ratings in the country for its “Border News and Lookaround” regional news magazine, often taking over 60 per cent of the audience. Presenters such as the late Eric Wallace, Keith Macklin and Derek Batey enjoyed huge followings. When Wallace died last year, so popular was he in Cumbria that hundreds attended his funeral in Carlisle – even though he had retired in 1998. Regional programmes such as “Look Who’s Talking”, a kind of Border Parkinson hosted by Derek Batey, and The Union and The League, a show that covered both codes of rugby popular in the region, always enjoyed high audience figures. Despite its limited budget and parochialism, Border did enjoy a lot of affection in its heyday; on a visit to the studios in 1985 I was impressed with the dedication and professionalism of the staff.

Yet today, regional ITV might as well disappear. Except for ITV1 London, Granada and Yorkshire, SMG stations and Ulster, the other ITV regions produce nothing more than news, weather, and two half-hour programmes a week buried opposite Eastenders. The old regional variations, where an ITV company could opt out of a programme that it felt was not popular in its region, have largely been crushed in favour of a uniform schedule as, in England and Wales, ITV1 is controlled from London. Regional idents, such as the famous LWT rivers and the Border DY logo, have now vanished, in favour of the blue and yellow ITV1 logo with continuity now coming from London rather than from regional studios.

Obviously, in a 24 hour world, though a great disappointment to anoraks like me, there is no way ITV could go back to start up sequences that made the station so interesting, from a presentation point of view, to me as a boy, but the wholesale destruction of regional ITV has been a disaster. What I think Ofcom, – a pale imitation of the IBA – should do, maybe with the help of a Commercial Television Bill in the Commons, is to insist that ITV1 stops its ridiculous policy of centralisation and requires regions to produce a minimum of four hours of non-news programming each week, and that middling production centres like Newcastle, Cardiff and Southampton retain the facilities to produce networked programmes. Regardless of what the South Bank might think, people do care about their regions: when the Lenton Lane studios closed in Nottingham, the local MP raised a petition with 20,000 signatures and hundreds of people in Newcastle signed a street petition to stop cutbacks at Tyne Tees. If Border was to be scaled down, I could imagine huge protests in my region.

The quality of ITV programming tends to be dire and is avoided en masse by middle class, male and better-educated viewers. Even the elderly, who often provided the main audience for ITV 20 years ago, have fled the station’s celebrity- and reality-obsessed programming in favour of BBC One. For some reason ITV’s core audience now seems to be twenty- or thirty-something females who read celebrity magazines, or members of the underclass – I have heard on a few occasions ITV1 being referred to as a “chav” station – who demand little out of their viewing. Fair enough, ITV was always seen as downmarket to the BBC (often unfairly), but it now justifies the tag of being tacky, unwatchable and unpopular. I wasn’t surprised that “Celebrity Wrestling”, which featured women celebrities wrestling – hardly wholesome family entertainment for a Saturday night – was rapidly pulled, and that “Celebrity Love Island”, which featured Z-list celebrities trying to establish “relationships” in Fiji, was less than successful, and other celebrity- and reality-based formats have died quickly. Viewers mostly aren’t interested in Abi Titmuss and Callum Best attempting to set up a stage-managed relationship in front of the cameras.

Similarly, ITV hammers its two ratings successes, “Coronation Street” and “Emmerdale”. Corrie is now shown five times a week; the slot once occupied by “World in Action” is now used for a second episode of “Coronation Street”; and “Emmerdale” is now shown six nights a week. While these programmes are undoubtedly popular, surely three nights a week would be enough. Again, the lack of a watchdog like the IBA is to blame. I can recall ATV being asked to reduce the number of “Crossroads” episodes to improve the storylines: it is a shame Ofcom cannot step in to tell ITV1 to cut down on the two big soaps to develop other programming. Without wanting to sound elitist, I would sooner have a half hour of interesting current affairs on the lines of “World in Action” or “This Week” than yet another offering of fake Mancunians in a pub. I am sure this would win back the better-educated viewers to ITV1, and hence a new advertising market, than the soap addicts.

ITV in the past has been criticised for being downmarket and taken appropriate action. Even though the early sixties ITV was like BBC Four compared with the modern version, the station was heavily criticised in the Pilkington Report on Broadcasting in 1962 for being vulgar, downmarket and too commercial. (It was obvious its authors had never seen some of ITV’s finer programmes, and had probably only seen the advertising magazine Jim’s Inn.) While Peter Cadbury of Westward burned copies of the report at a bonfire, and the Daily Mirror – whose readership would be heavy ITV viewers – criticised the report as elitist, the ITA was stung into action. Advertising magazine shows were withdrawn and contractors were instructed to produce more cultural and educational programmes. Indeed, when LWT replaced ATV as the London contractor in 1968, the station offered a distinctly BBC2 style of programming with arts shows, serious drama and interviews – though after disastrous ratings on Saturday nights, the station moved more to the mainstream. Similarly the successor to the ITA, the IBA, ordered Lew Grade to withdraw the “Golden Shot”, as it had been on air for too long, and in 1979 told him to reduce the number of “Crossroads” episodes because the quality was so bad. Later on, in a bid to move upmarket, ITV Sport ditched “World of Sport”, as it was attracting too downmarket an audience, and concentrated on more middle class sports such as rugby union.

Indeed I have often argued that ITV was the best thing that happened to the BBC. The BBC Television Service in the fifties was under funded – a legacy of the post war Director General, Sir William Haley, who had little interest in television – heavy going and too elitist. Certainly the BBC could make some good programmes: its coverage of the Coronation in 1953 was excellent, and current affairs programmes like “Panorama” were respected, but it lacked a popular touch. ITV introduced viewers to such un-BBC joys as variety shows, give-away game shows and professional wrestling, causing the BBC’s audience share to sink to 25 per cent in areas where ITV was available. All of this was backed up by a strong commitment to regional programmes, when these were practically non-existent on the BBC, and public service broadcasting. After all, Associated-Rediffusion wanted to be “the BBC with adverts” and aped BBC announcing techniques and presentation.

The BBC had to act. The appointment of Hugh Carleton-Greene as DG in 1959 led to the BBC popularising its output and launching BBC2 in 1964 so BBC1, the former BBC Television Service, could compete more easily with ITV. By the mid sixties, BBC and ITV were competing with each other to see who could make the best programmes, and ratings tended to split 50:50 between both broadcasters.

Modern ITV sadly has not set the standard for the huge range of commercial broadcasters that are available in the 21st century. With Channel 4 sliding steadily more downmarket with an unhealthy interest in reality, sex tips and “yoof” programming, and Channel 5 never showing much interest in quality, ITV, instead of setting the standard to its commercial rivals as it would have done in the past, has decided to move ever further downmarket and seems proud of it. As long as “Coronation Street” tops the ratings and there is a market for celebrity rubbish, brain-dead daytime programmes and abysmal light entertainment, ITV plc is happy as it still makes a profit and that’s all that matters. It makes you want to weep. The BBC, on the other hand, moved downmarket in the nineties during the Birt era and realised it was losing respect and viewers and has recently tried to move its programming back to the high standards associated with the Corporation in the past.

Of course, modern ITV does not have the IBA breathing down its neck. The IBA and the ITA before it had a very strong regulatory role and could order ITV companies to improve their programming or withdraw programmes that it thought would be too controversial or just plain awful. The 1990 Broadcasting Act, whose provisions were the cause of a lot of ITV’s problems as franchises were based more on money than quality, unlike previous franchise rounds, saw the firm hand of the Authority removed. In its place came the light touch – or more accurately feather-light touch – of first the ITC and now Ofcom, who have allowed ITV, and to be fair other commercial broadcasters, to show more or less what they want.

Under my mythical Commercial Television Bill, Ofcom would be beefed up and would intervene where it thought a broadcaster – and not just ITV: Channel 4 would see its public service remit enforced – was neglecting its commitment to quality broadcasting. Apart from commitments to regional programming, ITV1 could be ordered to reduce certain genres of programming such as reality shows, in favour of drama and to reinstate current affairs programmes at peak times twice a week. It would also require the reintroduction of formats such as situation comedy, which are no longer existent on ITV. Although ITV executives might groan that this was interference, and contrary to the laissez faire attitude of broadcasting over the last 15 years, I still reckon ITV1 would gain respect and viewers not normally keen on the channel. After all, Marcus Plantin, the first network controller in 1994, spoke of attracting BBC-type viewers to the station – which he briefly did with a fine range of drama series in the mid-nineties – but commercial pressures soon saw innovative drama shelved in favour of more Corrie and Emmerdale.

All this is not to say everything at ITV1 is awful. ITN has recently beefed itself up, introducing a one hour news bulletin at lunchtimes to compete with the BBC “One O Clock News” and “Working Lunch” on BBC Two, and the News at 10.30 does seem to be far more watchable than the News at When successors to “News at Ten”. The station still churns out some reasonable drama, and sports coverage – once a national joke – is far more professional than in the Dickie Davies era. Perhaps somewhere on the South Bank alarm bells have been ringing that a 16 per cent audience share is not good for business.

While the bulk of this article has dwelled on ITV1, which is the main public access point to the ITV brand and the one where improvements are most needed, ITV2 and ITV3 could be overhauled as ITV2 seems to be a dumping ground for soap omnibuses, continuations to ITV1 shows and football that is not important enough to be shown on ITV1. Perhaps re-jigging the station as an ITV sports channel – though not like the fiasco that was On Digital where a lower league football match had more spectators than viewers – and showing sports events such as the UEFA Cup, boxing, snooker and even racing again could pull in a reasonable audience. When there was no sport, ITV2 could be used to run male-oriented programmes such as motoring programmes. As for ITV3, which is a station aimed at over 35s and has a clearer focus than ITV2, perhaps turning it into a Gold station and showing shows from ITV’s archives as well as popular imported shows from the past would be a logical solution to the station’s future.

Yet ITV really does have a long way to go to restore its ruined reputation. I know the broadcaster, as a commercial operation, does have to make a profit and cannot take the same sort of risks the BBC can. However, as MG Rover found, if the market dries up for your product, you go out of business, or more worryingly ITV plc could be bought out by Sky and moved even more downmarket. The way forward for ITV is backwards, to restore regional programming, have Ofcom’s powers increased and to stop centralising everything in London and Manchester. Only then will ITV regain its title of “the people’s channel” and Melvyn Bragg can feel confident about saying it.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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Glenn Aylett Contact More by me

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3 responses to this article

a.latham 22 August 2012 at 4:39 pm

please refrain from sending adverts for soaps I never watch them and I am not interested.

Fed up with trying to unsubscribe.

Russ J Graham 23 August 2012 at 6:11 pm

Pretty obvious it’s not us (Transdiffusion) sending you those emails, Audrey. Who did you think you were contacting? ITV? That might provide a clue why you’re having issues unsubscribing.

Trevor Wilson 13 June 2014 at 12:30 pm

Sirs

I call Ofcom Nafcom i think they are partly to blame

for ITV going down hill plus Granada and Carlton.When LWT in London we had two great companies Thames and LWT when Granada took over LWT the company went downhill and now it’s not ITV anymore they should call it Granada UK.

thank you

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