There was a digital angle to almost everything in media over the
course of 1999 - the year that will be remembered for the fact that Emma
Thompson provisionally named her new baby jane.com. It had to happen -
and Emma has to be congratulated for stealing such a prominent place at
the leading edge of the zeitgeist. Marks off, though, for not allowing
digital interactive coverage of the delivery.
It was the year in which BSkyB and ONdigital started offering free
digital set-top boxes, and Open, the interactive domain on the Sky
system, was launched. Digital was the issue that prompted a
re-examination, undertaken by the Davies Committee, of the future
funding of the BBC. And, if you stretch a point, it was also a major
factor behind a wave of consolidation, both mooted and actual.
In a world where traditional network TV faces an uncertain future,
mergers have looked a good way to hedge a few bets where the sellers of
airtime are consolidating. From a global perspective, the biggest TV
merger was between CBS and Viacom, but the UK could have its own version
with Carlton Communications and United News & Media already having
declared their intention to tie the knot. The complication is that ITV’s
third major power, Granada, could still be an uninvited guest at the
wedding. The proposed merger between Flextech and Telewest will also
have intriguing implications should it go ahead.
On the agency side of things, there were many proposals, modest or
otherwise, but only one union with possible short-term implications for
the balance of power among media companies - the merger between Leo
Burnett and MacManus.
In the UK, that could eventually result in the amalgamation of three
specialists: Motive Communications, MediaVest and Starcom.
But the evolving ITV situation has to be the biggest talking point of
the year. Bob Wootton, the director of media and advertising affairs at
the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, thinks so: ’It’s a
pretty big way to end a year or a century, or a millennium for that
matter. The BBC has been a long-running area of concern for us too - and
the fact that the BBC admitted it had a huge hole in its funds, which in
turn led to the establishment of the Davies panel, is a major milestone.
As for digital and interactive and online advertising, I would say the
defining characteristic once again has been the contrast between the
high level of hype and the variable nature of the delivery. Generally
speaking, companies towards the more futuristic end of the spectrum
should do more to meet their promises or, dare I say it, bring their
promises down closer to their ability to deliver.’
Was the proposed ITV consolidation alarming news for the rest of the
commercial TV market? Not necessarily so, says Andy Barnes, the
commercial director of Channel 4. ’They’re not doing it to become a
great British media company now, are they? Let’s face it, they’re never
going to form another Time Warner. They are doing it to take more money
from the market. But if the rules change to allow a single ITV sales
house, that would also allow us to join forces with others. That has to
be seen as an opportunity.
Aside from that, there were two massive events in TV - the decision to
move News at Ten, which wasn’t as successful as ITV would have liked,
and the appointment of Greg Dyke as the director-general of the BBC. The
BBC has been in turmoil and it will take at least 12 months to turn
around, but he is incredibly bright, he has total support within the BBC
and has a mandate for change.’
For Jim Marshall, the chief executive of MediaVest, the MacManus merger
with Leo Burnett looms large in his assessment of the year’s events. He
agrees that the digital arena has dominated industry thinking but argues
that it has had its disappointing aspects. Marshall says: ’The move to
offer free set-top boxes was pretty significant and we’re already
looking at 15 per cent digital penetration - but I would have to say
that, from an advertiser’s point of view, the issue of interactivity has
still to be addressed properly and digital television may turn out to be
merely about more viewing fragmentation.
The lessons for the advertising industry may well be that individual
commercials will have to work harder.’
Marshall also believes it wasn’t the best time for a row to erupt in the
press market - a few weeks ago, three Birmingham newspapers owned by
Trinity Mirror were found to have been producing fraudulent circulation
figures. ’It is continuing to create bad blood in the newspaper industry
and it affects agencies and a lot of advertisers. It focuses our
attention on accountability within the industry and could have
far-reaching implications,’ Marshall predicts.
It was, perhaps, unfortunate that the newspaper industry, which arguably
had a quiet year, drew attention to itself for mainly negative reasons.
But Carolyn McCall, the deputy managing director of The Guardian and The
Observer, doesn’t see it in those terms.
She says: ’Of course, it’s hugely embarrassing for Trinity Mirror but I
can’t agree that trading currencies have been undermined. Looked at
overall, the ABC has been continually improving, and the National
Readership Surveys is delivering more than ever.’
McCall argues that, far from having a quiet time of it, the newspaper
business has had a ’watershed’ year. She says: ’The net has been massive
news for newspapers this year. It has been behind huge revenue growth -
double-digit growth in our case - and we’ve been launching dot.com
businesses ourselves. We now have a network of websites (Guardian
Unlimited) that are all becoming businesses in their own right. All the
major newspaper players have internet businesses.’