FORUM: Does the ITC have grounds for its criticism of ITV? - Has the Independent Television Commission got it horribly wrong yet again? ITV is hardly perfect, but it’s a bit rich to criticise the network for running too much drama. Should the ITC

It’s almost impossible to unite the advertising industry behind its favourite bete noire, ITV - unless, of course, you’re the Independent Television Commission. Last week, the ITC laid into the network for an allegedly poor programming performance (Campaign, 25 April).

It’s almost impossible to unite the advertising industry behind its

favourite bete noire, ITV - unless, of course, you’re the Independent

Television Commission. Last week, the ITC laid into the network for an

allegedly poor programming performance (Campaign, 25 April).



In its 1996 performance reviews of the 15 ITV franchises, plus GMTV and

Channel 4, the ITC insists that ’competitive pressures have produced a

peak-time schedule which relies too heavily on drama’. Bizarrely, the

report actually praises individual ITV companies for the quality of

their drama output - the problem must be that the Network Centre is just

running too much of it.



The report continues to argue that too much drama in the schedule leaves

little room for comedy and entertainment. There’s also an unacceptably

low provision of documentaries, arts programmes and children’s

drama.



This is hardly the first time that the ITC has taken a pop at ITV’s

schedules - it has to justify its existence every now and again, after

all - but more than ever there is a feeling that the regulator has lost

the plot.



ITV, remember, is not being criticised for flooding the schedule with

game shows - the knee-jerk reaction of those who hate the channel

without actually watching it. This time, it is being taken to task for

not running enough. The network has been under pressure in the last

couple of years not only to deliver ratings but the right sort of

ratings. The success of its drama, even if it’s Coronation Street,

within these terms of reference, should surely win praise.



Arguably, ITV should also be given slightly more room to manoeuvre. Not

only does it face real competition this year from Channel 5, but it has

been having a torrid time at the hands of the BBC, which has been acting

in an increasingly aggressive commercial manner. ITV has to deliver

ratings and advertisers are insisting that it does more than just manage

decline.



At this juncture the network could do without the attentions of an

over-officious watchdog that apparently wants it to be the UK’s least

commercial channel.



ITV sources are reluctant to comment on the details of the ITC

judgement, but Martin Bowley, the managing director of Carlton UK Sales,

sums up the overall position succinctly: ’One of the reasons we have

lost audience over the past few years is that our main rival, the BBC,

has gone more commercial. It is running a third EastEnders and the

National Lottery, not more documentaries and arts programmes. Channel 5

is building its proposition around Hollywood movies. I’d hate to think

that this was a one-way street.’



Does the ITC realise what’s at stake out there in the real commercial

world? Is it time for the advertising industry to have a quiet word in

the ITC’s ear? Maybe it’s time to start lobbying for a fundamental

reappraisal of the way that television as a whole is regulated. Perhaps

we need a unitary authority able to take a broader perspective -

including the activities of the BBC.



Bob Wootton, the director of media services at the Incorporated Society

of British Advertisers, argues that a single television authority is not

a feasible short-term goal, but he does agree that the latest ITC report

highlights inconsistencies in the way that broadcasting is regulated in

the UK.



’The BBC should be the main vehicle for extending programme choice in

this country,’ he says. ’It is not ideal, to say the least, to see the

BBC getting more and more commercial while the ITC seeks to saddle ITV

with requirements that will further handicap the network.’



’This is a regulator of significant power and autonomy - and you have to

say right from the outset that the rattling of sabres isn’t likely to

work. But we would not discount an approach to the ITC. It tends to view

a cross-party lobby rather more favourably than a single lobby. If a

cross-party delegation were to go to see the ITC it might well cut more

mustard than several individual representations - but that route could

be useful too in getting the opinion of the industry across.’



Ray Kelly, the chief executive of Carat UK and the chairman of the Media

Policy Group of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, says he

has a tiny bit of sympathy for the ITC. ’Some of its points in the

recent report are not unreasonable - a greater diversity of programming

would be desirable.



But it is ironic that the ITC has an ostrich-like approach at a time

when the BBC is so competitive.



’There will come a time when the industry will have to put its views to

the ITC and perhaps you could argue that the remit needs to be

reconsidered. The ITC’s nanny attitude is clearly out of date,

especially in light of the significant decline in ITV audiences. As to

whether that would require legislation or could be achieved by a more

flexible outlook at the ITC - the honest answer is, I don’t know. But

it’s not unreasonable for the IPA and other bodies like ISBA to be

addressing this.’



Mike Wood, the media director of J. Walter Thompson, agrees that it’s

time to start asking just whose interest the ITC is serving. ’Conflict

arises because the ITC has a statutory duty to ensure quality and

diversity - but not popularity. So it’s hardly surprising that the ITC

laments the marginalisation of the South Bank Show while complaining

that ITV’s 9pm drama slot is at the expense of other entertainment

formats. Even the extension of Coronation Street to four episodes a week

is seen as further squeezing variety out of the schedule.



This is the heart of the problem - the ITC wants less of the most

popular television show in UK history and more of the South Bank Show, a

programme that 95 per cent of viewers regard as a good reason to go to

bed early.’



Wood argues that viewers vote with their remote controls each night -

and the ITC isn’t serving their interests. ’The ITC is out on a

limb.



It has a mandate to serve but no constituents. Consequently its

pronouncements come across as highbrow and patronising. There may well

be room for more diversity but not in this case - leave drama alone.’