Forum: Is the time right to shake up ITV’s Network Centre?

The resignation last week of ITV’s central scheduler, Marcus Plantin, gives ITV the chance to reassess the role of its Network Centre. Is its structure due for an overhaul? What sort of person (or people) should get the top job? Can anyone be expected to rise above ITV’s ferocious internal politics? Alasdair Reid reports.

The resignation last week of ITV’s central scheduler, Marcus

Plantin, gives ITV the chance to reassess the role of its Network

Centre. Is its structure due for an overhaul? What sort of person (or

people) should get the top job? Can anyone be expected to rise above

ITV’s ferocious internal politics? Alasdair Reid reports.



In last week’s post-election excitement and the blizzard of big media

stories - everything from the announcement of a new Channel 4 boss to

the shock acquisition of Virgin Radio by Capital - the resignation of

the ITV Network Centre boss, Marcus Plantin, went almost unnoticed

Perhaps he wanted it that way - his last couple of years have not been

joyously happy, especially from an advertising industry perspective. It

was appropriate, arguably, that the audience for his final bow was lower

than expected.



Plantin wasn’t exactly unpopular - he is personally liked by many in the

airtime market, despite personifying traditional ITV arrogance - but his

tenure can hardly be described as a complete success.



Plantin was brought in to co-ordinate the network’s programming efforts

and to bolster its ratings performance. But, since his arrival in 1992,

ITV’s audience share has been on a consistent downward slide and airtime

inflation has continued to gallop ahead of the retail price index, much

to the fury of advertisers struggling through a recession.



He has left his mark, of course, and ITV’s output now is very different

to what it was in 1992. In fact, ITV drama has never been stronger.

Ironically, the Independent Television Commission criticised Plantin for

running too much drama, to the exclusion of ITV’s light entertainment

fare.



There are some who will argue that Plantin did an amazing job given

ITV’s underlying structural problems - despite a desperately contrived

veneer of unity, the network remains a civil war waiting to happen.



Even though ITV is now talking about beefing up the Network Centre and

hiring a chief executive for what may be called ITV Limited (Campaign,

last week), the structural problems aren’t about to vanish. Should the

Network Centre be revamped completely and, if so, how should it

look?



David Cuff, the broadcast director of Initiative Media, believes the

political infighting is probably far worse than we can ever imagine.

’All we know for sure is that decisions are still not taken on the basis

of what will be best for ITV audiences. Each of the big three companies

fights to get its quota of slots within the schedules because they can

make money through programme production - not least through

international sales. Compromises are inevitably made,’ he comments.



Cuff argues that the best way to solve this problem would be to change

the sales policies pursued by the ITV sales houses. He states: ’Every

other broadcaster in the UK knows what its ratings are worth. ITV knows

only how much discount it is carrying. If ITV was selling on a fixed

price system, it would soon move to fix ratings problems. We know from

the BBC’s example that you don’t have to accept the inevitability of

ratings decline.



We need someone at the centre with flair and guts - someone who could

look seriously at moving News at Ten, for instance. The whole industry

would support someone determined to make ITV behave in a more commercial

manner.’



The growth in new viewing opportunities - satellite, Channel 5 and

digital to come - is a huge challenge to the ITV structure, Jerry Hill,

the chief executive of TSMS, believes. The network’s federal system was

designed to operate in a market that has since changed out of all

recognition. ’The Network Centre has been a success, given the

structural obstacles that have hitherto existed,’ Hill insists. ’The

vigour of competition is such that a rethink is now due in order to

provide a new balance between the concerns of regional ITV companies and

ITV’s overall sales and programming performance. The Network Centre will

play an increasing role in achieving this. It should be welcomed by the

agency and advertiser community.’



Although Hill won’t be drawn on the nature of this new balance, he seems

to argue for greater centralised powers. Mark Craze, managing director

of TMD Carat and the TV sales practices spokesman on the Media Policy

Group of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, would welcome a

clearer sense of purpose at the centre. He would also like to see more

appropriate skills being brought to bear.



’It has always struck me as strange that ITV, the UK’s commercial TV

brand leader, doesn’t have a marketing director. What other leading

brand is in that position? The network has to find someone to fill that

role and it must also give an unequivocal commitment to guaranteeing

that person’s power base. The problem for ITV is that its individual

companies are both buyers and sellers of programmes and that must create

mind-boggling tensions within the network,’ he argues. ’What is needed

is a structure to manage that more effectively but I’m not sure it can

ever be wholly resolved.



Whoever is in charge will be under pressure. It should be someone with a

high profile and the clout to demand a clear commitment from the big ITV

companies.’



Alan James, the broadcast director of the Network, agrees. ’I’d like to

see someone with sales expertise having an input at the centre, not just

in influencing the quality of the product coming through but also on its

scheduling. And we really do need a very strong person who is able to

put ITV’s views forward in the right places. Channel 4 has benefited

massively from the influence Michael Grade had. The difference between

Grade’s ability to get the Government to listen and ITV having to run

for cover on the issue of moving News at Ten was very marked,’ he

says.



James argues that the network should try once more to make a virtue of

its regional structure. He adds: ’ITV’s rivals are very different when

it comes to their audience strengths in each region of the country and

it could be argued that individual ITV companies should be given more

flexibility to combat that. Opting out of central scheduling would have

to be done for audience reasons, not political or cost factors, and it

would have to be done in a structured way, involving intelligently

conducted negotiations with the Network Centre. If done properly, it

could have a significant impact on ITV audiences.’



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