FORUM: What are the big questions facing media in ’98? - It’s crystal-ball-gazing time again. While the year planners still look relatively empty, it’s worth trying to back some winners - and spot some losers - for the year ahead.

This will be the year when television goes digital. Not that anyone will notice, of course, because the equipment probably won’t be in the shops until Christmas. But digital will have a major part to play in this year’s media market because it will be an ingredient of the soup the BBC is getting itself into. And a very sticky soup it is too.

This will be the year when television goes digital. Not that anyone

will notice, of course, because the equipment probably won’t be in the

shops until Christmas. But digital will have a major part to play in

this year’s media market because it will be an ingredient of the soup

the BBC is getting itself into. And a very sticky soup it is too.



Dear old Auntie will hit a severe funding crisis as it tries and fails

to juggle wholly contradictory interests. Such as trying to position

itself at the forefront of the digital future with, notably, its 24-hour

news channel, while developing pay-TV in partnership with Flextech, and

seeking to improve its credentials as a global media owner. Meanwhile,

domestic ratings will crash alarmingly on BBC 1 as the recent massive

talent exodus begins to bite. (Does the BBC have any drama expertise

left at all?)



Unhappily, though, this will be of little benefit to ITV - Channels 4

and 5 will be best placed to pick up discerning refugees fleeing

Auntie’s meltdown. Meanwhile, the summer’s traditional ITV ratings

crisis will be as much of a shock to network boss Richard Eyre’s regime

as it has been to his predecessors. (Where do advertisers get all that

anger from?) And he will admit for the first time that the network has

structural problems that are resistant to the waving of magic wands.



Lastly, newspapers. Tony O’Reilly, having retired as chairman of Heinz,

will focus on one of the other strings to his bow - Independent

Newspapers.



He already owns the Irish version and half of the UK stable - the

Independent and its Sunday sister - but he doesn’t much care for the way

that the UK titles have been managed. At some point during the year

O’Reilly will move to oust co-owners, the Mirror Group - though look out

for Andrew Neil and the Barclay brothers trying to confuse the issue

with highly publicised offers to ’secure the future’ of the two titles.

Sadly, during the year, we shall lose one national newspaper. A likely

story? Well you may ask. After all, we’ve been saying this for at least

five years and catastrophe has yet to point its fickle finger, Today

aside.



So, what do the experts think will be the dominant issues in the media

market this year? Marco Rimini, currently the vice-chairman of CIA

Medianetwork and soon-to-be director of strategy at J. Walter Thompson,

says that you can’t escape the obvious: ’Everyone will be looking to see

what will happen at ITV.



That has to be the biggest issue. I think there is a great deal of

optimism about what Richard Eyre will achieve. It is a massive

undertaking, but I don’t think he would have taken the job unless he’d

received assurances that he would be allowed to address the underlying

structural issues and rivalries within the network.’



He also thinks it will be another interesting year on the agency

side.



’There will be more consolidation on the buying side, which is still

fragmented compared with the sales market. But at the other end of the

market, I think there will be lots of start-ups to counterbalance that.

Lastly, it will be interesting to see how the major creative agencies

respond to the issue of media planning. I’ve been surprised at how

little they’ve done to address that question over the last couple of

years.’



Many believe that ad revenue growth will outstrip inflation by between 3

and 4 per cent this year. Ray Kelly, the chief executive of Carat UK, is

certainly counting on that. He also believes that Richard Eyre’s vision

for the future of ITV - to be revealed next week - will win support from

many people in the industry. It could even get the thumbs up from the

Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, probably, he predicts, in

the same week that Eyre is canonised by the Catholic Church and Chris

Evans is elevated to the position of BBC director-general. Other long

shots include the Times’s daily sale overhauling the Telegraph’s and the

ownership of CIA Group changing hands.



But, perhaps surprisingly, Kelly gives even longer odds for British

Digital Broadcasting. ’There are so many things to be settled -

organisational structures, strategic issues and even a broad

understanding about what it will or will not be as a service - that I

can’t see it getting its act together this year.’



Bob Wootton, the director of media and advertising affairs at ISBA,

predicts that the cost of television will still be an issue -

particularly inflation fuelled by falling audiences - and ITV will again

be the biggest worry. ’The minutage issue isn’t dead but restoring

audience is the key issue and, if that happens, the pressure to pursue

the minutage question would be greatly reduced,’ he comments.



Wootton believes the issue of media research will rumble on, especially

with the onset of digital: ’How many people will be watching and how do

you measure them? Yes, it’s true there won’t be a considerable audience

pull in the early years and the research community isn’t under immediate

pressure. But we have to start asking the questions now.’



And, he thinks that newspapers could do better: ’It would be nice to see

newspapers getting together to make better efforts to market themselves

to advertisers.’



According to Jim Marshall, the chief executive of Media-Vest: ’In

newspapers, the main theme is likely to be the Mail’s dominance, not

only of the mid-market but its encroachment on the popular market too.

The popular tabloids are going through what ITV has been going through -

they just seem to be in terminal decline and they have to do something

about it. Dare I say it - maybe the great British public is becoming

more discerning and sophisticated.



’But perhaps the biggest issue of all is the attitude of youth towards

media, especially traditional media.



According to a survey we conducted recently, it’s a pretty parlous

situation, with newspapers in particular commanding a very low esteem.

It will be interesting to see if magazines, particularly in the

specialist men’s sector, can continue to take advantage of that.’



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