Campaign Report on Television: New boss new ITV - can Richard Eyre really change the Network Centre?/The industry will soon discover if Richard Eyre can stamp his authority on ITV and tackle the problems he has inherited

Like Bill Clinton, a fellow chief executive of sorts, the new man at ITV has settled on the first 100 days of his reign as a crucial first test. Clinton’s were supposed to usher in a number of social and economic changes, the like of which hadn’t been seen in the US for 30 years or more. They ultimately floundered, largely as a result of their own ambition, as plans for massive health reform, for example, were blocked by an intransigent Congressional opposition.

Like Bill Clinton, a fellow chief executive of sorts, the new man

at ITV has settled on the first 100 days of his reign as a crucial first

test. Clinton’s were supposed to usher in a number of social and

economic changes, the like of which hadn’t been seen in the US for 30

years or more. They ultimately floundered, largely as a result of their

own ambition, as plans for massive health reform, for example, were

blocked by an intransigent Congressional opposition.



Richard Eyre, the new chief executive of ITV, has, appropriately enough,

set a rather more modest goal. His first 100 days, which will end at the

beginning of January, will be occupied merely by the search for a

cohesive strategy, not by the implementation of it. But at the end of

that search the problem facing him will be similar to Clinton’s - how to

force change through a body that is nominally united in government, but

in practice wielding the power to block change and aggressively promote

its own interests.



Clinton’s problem is that his every decision is ultimately voted on by

Congress. Eyre has just as tricky a problem. He has to steer change past

those self-interested citizens of ITV - the stations themselves. The

comparison is, perhaps, not as fanciful as it might seem. As Aristotle

tells us, man is a political animal. It just so happens that ITV Man is

a particularly ferocious example of the breed.



’The extent to which Eyre is allowed to be his own man, using as many

diplomatic skills as he can muster, will be vital if he hopes to prosper

in the job,’ comments one agency director, who prefers not to be named -

at least until Eyre has had a chance to show what he can do.



It’s no secret that the job of the head of the ITV network has, in the

past at least, involved making use of the art of productive compromise

as much as anything. Influencing every decision made at the Network

Centre is the fact that it was established to serve ITV company

paymasters who compete with each other for network commissions,

advertising revenue and distribution deals.



For example, if Granada, the maker of Cracker, wants that programme to

run at the weekend, partly because it owns LWT and it thinks Cracker is

an attractive show for LWT advertisers, what does the Network Centre do

? In theory, Eyre’s new director of planning and strategy, David Bergg,

decides independently when to schedule the shows to maximise the whole

ITV output. In practice, this process has seen more horse trading than

the Newmarket Sales.



Again, there is the position of the biggest ITV companies as programme

suppliers to the network. In theory, the centre is obliged to source

programming from only two (not necessarily mutually exclusive) sources -

at least one quarter must come from the independent production sector.

Everything should come from the source that provides the biggest, most

desirable audiences. Again, in the past this has not always seemed to

have been the case, at least to independent producers.



The suspicion that the independent sector is squeezed out by the ITV

companies is a constant complaint. Last year, an eight-part ITV

night-time commission attracted a staggering 386 proposals from 155

different companies. Staggering, that is, when you discover that price

negotiations for the programming started at the less than princely sum

of pounds 8,000 an hour. Most of these bids were from small independents

falling over themselves to show ITV that they too had something to

contribute, and that the highest possible audience numbers are not

always generated by a reliance on the ITV companies themselves.



’The Network Centre is supposed to promote a level playing field, but

how can it? Independents don’t really have the same access as the ITV

companies that are the centre’s shareholders,’ Ray Thompson, the founder

of the independent, Cloud 9 Screen Entertainment, argues.



Thompson had a difficult time negotiating with the Network Centre’s

previous regime, even with the partial backing of ITV companies. The

former Howard’s Way scriptwriter last year took two sponsored

productions unsuccessfully to the centre, including the Nick Berry

vehicle, Winners and Losers, through Yorkshire.



Thompson was also knocked back by the Network Centre on the Enid Blyton

series the company eventually made with the Channel 5 shareholder, CLT,

and sold to more than 50 countries and Channel 5 itself.



It is true the independent sector has consistently won more than the

statutory 25 per cent minimum of commissions and is now running at

around 35 per cent of ITV hours, if not of ITV money. But there is a

real danger that the increasing competition in the market may lead the

ITV companies to challenge that share. One of the issues facing Eyre and

his team is how to make sure this competition actually benefits ITV

where it matters most to advertisers - in the ratings. In this summer’s

season, independent producers were responsible for 19 of the top 50

rated shows. The Network Centre is supposed to prevent the companies

that control ITV from commissioning pretty much what they want, but

insiders confirm there will be pressure on that relationship if ITV’s

share slides.



’The range of programmes and of programming suppliers for ITV is

probably not going to be as great in two or three years as it is now,

but that will make it harder for everyone, not just the independent

sector,’ one ITV Broadcasting executive, comments.



But if the relationship between independents and the ITV programme

producers is likely to subject the new team to a little covert political

pressure, the fundamental problem Eyre will inherit is well known.

Audiences are falling because of fragmentation and an increasing

inability to make the sort of programmes - especially high-rating light

entertainment shows - that made the network’s reputation. The falling

audiences have sent impacts into freefall and led to spiralling airtime

inflation and a souring of relationships between ITV and the advertisers

and agencies that support it.



Almost Eyre’s first step - after he met privately with the Incorporated

Society of British Advertisers to pour oil on these troubled waters -

was to acknowledge this difficulty. ’Our relationships with our

customers have been too bad for too long,’ he admitted. ’I know your

frustration is now so ingrained that you have felt yourselves compelled

to call for radical solutions,’ he said, in what was effectively an

inaugural address to the ad community. ’But I appeal to you to work with

us - the proposals being made are, I know, not your policy ends in

themselves, but a cry to ITV to take seriously the dissatisfaction of

advertisers and to deal with it. To get the bloody ratings up.’



This is not a straightforward task. The problem is not something that

can be solved easily by throwing money at it. ITV has the highest single

channel budget in Europe and last year spent more than pounds 600

million on programming. It supported this programming with a pounds 5

million ad campaign.



In 1996, in an average month, it typically produced six of the top ten

most popular programmes in the UK, 14 of the top 20 and 20 of the top

30.



But that doesn’t mean it has stopped the rot.



Already this year those statistics have slipped back. Coronation Street

might have overtaken EastEnders after it was sexed up a little by Brian

Park, but the network is now responsible for just five of the top ten,

11 of the top 20 and 17 of the top 30 programmes. And that after the

launch of Channel 5 failed to match even modest predictions. That

potential ratings rival could eventually claim a 10 per cent share, some

analysts had claimed.



Now, with viewing figures stuck at around 3 per cent (although before

the final transmitters are fully operational), even half that seems some

way off. The real problems are not coming from satellite and niche

stations but from a resurgent BBC, which this summer clocked up nine of

the top 20 rated shows, against the two it managed just two years

ago.



One year ago, Eyre’s predecessor, Marcus Plantain, explained how ITV was

to position itself and what would constitute an acceptable performance,

bearing in mind that when he arrived at the network share was more than

43 per cent - and when he left it was just more than 36 per cent.



’The question is, how do we make certain of our place in this

multi-channel environment?’ he said. ’We simply have to take the largest

share of the viewing cake. We can’t realistically stay the same size in

terms of absolute numbers with all these new cable and satellite

stations and Channel 5 coming online, so our objective is to continue to

be the biggest single channel and to take the biggest share of the

watching audience.’



One year on, Eyre has to go even further to reassure advertisers. He has

to put a timetable on change. So far, that timetable is still fuzzy

around the edges. The plan is that the new team should begin to help

arrest audience decline by next year, Eyre says, and then go on to show

improvement in each of the next two years.



’I think Eyre’s job at ITV is not dissimilar to the one that faced Tony

Blair when he took over the Labour Party,’ Paul van Barthold, broadcast

director at the Media Business group, says. ’While I’m sure Richard will

love me comparing him with Blair, we all want to see New ITV; an ITV

that makes bold decisions about some of its most cherished programmes.

Richard stresses he has the authority to do the job his way, without

interference from the ITV companies, and I think we should all give him

time to show that he has.’



There are tough decisions to take almost all over the schedule. The

Bill, for example, is signed up in a deal that guarantees ITV the show

until 2001. It’s still a hugely popular show, averaging more than eight

million viewers over the summer. But, in fact, that represented a slip

of 16 per cent on a year ago, largely because the BBC has had real

success in scheduling popular documentaries against the show. It’s how

Eyre and his team deal with that sort of problem that is likely to shape

the effectiveness of his administration.



Eyre’s pedigree suggests ITV has chosen wisely. It’s easy to forget just

how poor the impression of commercial radio was when he took up the

reins at Capital Radio. Eyre had impressed as the media director of

Bartle Bogle Hegarty for his trademark intelligence and approachability.

He played a full part in helping Capital thrive against the additional

radio competition in the London market. Not only that, he helped radio

in general get its act together and, through the Radio Advertising

Bureau, made the advertising world take radio seriously as a medium.



There are some similarities - ITV is also an impressive brand now

struggling and seeking to blame the struggle not on its own actions but

on market dynamics outside its control. But ITV is a bigger challenge

than radio.



Fortunately, Eyre enters the job with a couple of important plus points

- he has inherited a rejuvenated sports line-up that includes the Five

Nations Rugby and, for the first time in more than five years, the FA

Cup.



’The BBC and even Channel 4 have proved broadcast erosion is not

inevitable in a multi-channel environment,’ David Cuff, Initiative

Media’s broadcast director, points out. ’I’m going to reserve judgment

until the 100 days are up and Eyre talks to us all in the New Year to

outline his new strategy for the channel. But one thing seems clear:



ITV has to get back to taking risks on new programming. It’s only a

couple of years ago that it was producing great drama like Cracker and

Soldier, Soldier, and it’s just lost its way by playing it safe and not

lining up replacements in time. Eyre now needs to take risks.

Unfortunately, he can’t afford to fail.’



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