ITV: Running forward just to stand still? 

5 March 2012 tbs.pm/1293

Running a major broadcaster is of course significantly different from running, say, the Post Office, so the appointment of Adam Crozier was always going to be a gamble especially as he was recruited from a non-media position to lead the broadcaster into relative prosperity under relatively difficult circumstances.

So how well is ITV now doing under Crozier’s leadership, and does ITV’s management truly appreciate how much work remains to be done, especially when the Simon Cowell money machine begins to run out of steam as may now be the case?

Crozier took over from Michael Grade, whose much-heralded return to ITV after a spell at the BBC was always meant to have been a temporary position in order to stabilise what was formerly a broadcaster on the critical list partly as a consequence of a Granada-Carlton “shotgun merger” and the failure of the ITV/ONdigital pay-TV service.

Grade’s obvious weakness was a lack of ‘new’ media understanding, but ITV still got by on the traditional strengths of being a broadcaster; something that from ITV’s perspective thankfully never really went away. Friends Reunited was always a very risky purchase but others made even more reckless decisions and had their fingers burnt badly as well.

ITV1 now faces competition from a resurgent BBC, with Call the Midwife being a runaway success that concerns ITV bosses far more than something like Sherlock because Call the Midwife also happens to be popular with exactly the sort of viewer that would also watch ITV’s ‘cosy’ soaps and dramas (Downton, Emmerdale, Foyle’s War, etc.).

Then there’s The Voice, which is the BBC’s latest talent show acquisition that has already performed very well in other countries such as America and France. Directly scheduling Britain’s Got Talent against The Voice is a sure sign that ITV takes any threat extremely seriously, and ITV management must privately be very anxious as to what might happen.

The danger for ITV of course is that Got Talent has already peaked, with recent success perhaps just being due to a lack of credible (and direct) opposition in terms of “shiny floor show” reality-style television. The Voice has the potential to unseat (or at least seriously undermine) one of ITV’s biggest cash cows so what happens next will be very interesting.

Of course The Voice could still turn out be an embarrassing flop for the BBC, with success or failure ultimately riding on how the judges and format are perceived by its viewers. But if the end result is fresher and less aggressive than the emotion-laden Cowell offerings then ITV could be in real trouble because it still has a bulk of its eggs in two baskets.

Perhaps the greatest sign in recent months that ITV still has much to learn in its current incarnation can be found in the performance and execution of last year’s much-hyped ‘quiz’ show Red or Black, which was almost universally panned by the critics and arguably met with muted indifference by most of its viewers.

Apparently Simon Cowell wanted to do another music-based show (safe territory for him), but ITV apparently had “other ideas” so a previously-piloted old format of dubious merit was dusted down, tweaked and presented as the next and greatest new thing, which in turn resulted in perhaps the ultimate expression of style over content in recent times.

ITV still seriously seems to think that Red or Black has a chance of success with further prescribed tweaking and a second series commissioned perhaps to save loss of face as opposed to allowing a ‘difficult’ format time to find its feet, which in itself isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of ITV’s commissioning department as it stands.

There were aspects of Red or Black which purely through commonsense (you might have thought) shouldn’t have been implemented for its first run, including the cardinal sin of running a new series consecutively over several nights meaning that it’s literally forced down the throats of ITV1 viewers whether they wanted it or not.

Running a new series over a short period of time also provides negligible opportunity to make changes in real time; a situation made even worse when you have potentially embarrassing revelations about contestants, whether justified or otherwise.

(Just because lots of ITV viewers are happy with Britain’s Got Talent or the X Factor doesn’t mean that a devoid-of-content gameshow stuffed with sob stories will attract anything like the same following.)

You can’t automatically just tick boxes on a form and commission something that meets such criteria as a consequence, though ITV isn’t by any means the sole guilty party in this respect with all the major broadcasters suffering from this syndrome to a certain extent; witness all the cooking/gardening/reality TV clones that have proliferated over the years.

The Daybreak fiasco also reinforced perceptions of a lack of judgement, even if any GMTV replacement would always struggle to find favour with a conservative audience familiar with its cosy format. Just transplanting two popular presenters (Adrian Chiles and Christine Bleakley) to mornings doesn’t guarantee success in any shape or form.

Other alarm bells for ITV include a continuing lack of fresh ideas aside from Downton Abbey that have performed consistently well; even Foyle’s War is now belatedly being recommissioned, which may not be a bad idea in itself but still betrays a lack of real imagination in terms of innovative drama and might be construed as a sign of desperation.

Then there are erratic and occasionally counterproductive scheduling decisions such as shunting Coronation Street around the schedules; it may show that ITV is prepared to be competitive but advertisers are far less impressed with such tactics, much preferring to have Corrie’s regular viewers in a regular timeslot in order to promote their products.

It’s arguable that the conservative nature of some advertisers is what’s really holding back ITV from ultimate success, but there have been enough experiments (and experimental failures) elsewhere in the schedule to justify some room for manoeuvre without upsetting the status quo too much. Trust on both sides ultimately needs to be engendered further.

So is ITV in a prime position to prosper or heading for yet another fall? A surprisingly significant factor will be the success or failure of rival show The Voice, and ITV Studios’ ability to produce and deliver new ideas will also be under heavy scrutiny, especially in an environment where failure is tolerated much less compared to somewhere like the BBC.

Also BSkyB will be another rival to watch as it continues its quest to commission more original programming; it has already spent lots of money luring independent producers of comedy (Spy, Stella, Trollied, etc.) away from cash-strapped BBC commissioners hobbled by their post-Sachsgate red tape compliancy nightmare – ITV could be next on the hit list.

ITV shareholders will start to ask very awkward questions if ITV Studios fails to deliver the goods, and renewed pressure to split the broadcast and production divisions into separate units may happen if Adam Crozier fails to build on any momentum so far gained.

It’s also fairly unlikely that ITV’s plans to monetise content will be successful if it decides to go alone, especially since BSkyB/Lovefilm/Netflix/etc. are also jumping on the internet video-on-demand bandwagon. And exactly how many people will be prepared to make ‘micropayments’ to ITV.com for anything other than, say, clips of One Direction?

The significance of the success of Britain’s Got Talent and the X Factor cannot be underestimated because they have bought ITV management valuable breathing space in (hopefully) preparing the broadcaster for a prosperous future, but will they be truly prepared for what happens next?

it may be the case that just like Channel 4’s dependence on Big Brother, ITV won’t know what to do until it’s actually too late to do something, and in ITV’s case the stakes could end up being even higher.