ITV and Channel 4 both had a ‘could do better’ report card from the
Independent Television Commission last week. ITV was given a stern
talking to for its love affair with police series. Does it really need
to pull its socks up or is the ITC starting to exhibit an extremely
tenuous grasp on reality? Alasdair Reid reports
There’s something quaintly old-fashioned about the Independent
Television Commission - at least there is in its role as arbiter of good
taste and wholesome family values. It seems to have survived
unreconstructed from the days when Listen with Mother could still be
found on the Home Service and the very idea of an independent television
network was a dangerous innovation.
Last week, Channel 4 and ITV were to be found in the ITC top corridor
(Campaign, 26 April), about to enter the head’s study to get a caning
for various breaches of discipline - Channel 4 for not producing enough
home-grown material and running too many repeats and ITV for being
obsessed with police series, for letting things slip in its regional
output and for showing too much general entertainment to the detriment
of religious and arts programming.
ITV’s indictment over wall-to-wall police programming is probably the
most bizarre of these charges. Some of the shows, especially Camera
Action Live and Police, Camera, Action!, which use video material shot
by the police, were deemed to be in very bad taste indeed. They probably
are. The point is, though, that millions of viewers disagree. Some of
the most successful programmes in the history of television have been
cop shows. After all, 13 million people tune into the Bill each Friday -
surely 13 million people can’t be wrong?
Last year, ITV took a lot of stick from advertisers for failing to
deliver audiences. Surely the last thing it needs now is to be penalised
for turning things around. And, surely, the last thing that advertisers
need is for ITV to pay too much attention to what the ITC thinks?
Leslie Hill, the chairman of the ITV Association, defends ITV’s regional
record - regional news outperforms the BBC’s rival service - and says
that there is nothing inherently wrong with crime series. After all,
hasn’t Cracker just won a best drama Bafta for the second year running?
But he believes in the importance of balance: ‘As the ITC recognises,
ITV must strike a balance between its obligations to its viewers, its
advertisers, its regulators, its shareholders and to the Treasury.
Such a balance has to involve sustaining successful programmes while
experimenting with new formats and ideas to keep the schedules
He continues: ‘As the UK’s most popular channel, ITV has to strike a
balance between satisfying and forming viewers’ tastes across a wide
range of programmes. There is evidence to suggest that a schedule which
is strong on entertainment is extremely popular with viewers.’
Hill is nothing if not diplomatic. Yet it must be frustrating to have to
face the toughest competition in the network’s history with one arm
effectively tied behind your back. Even though the ITC recognises the
realities of competition - it has overseen concentration of power on the
sales side, for instance, and approves of further mergers and
acquisitions within the network - the ITC certainly seems in no mood to
cut ITV some slack. Should it be? Is it time for agencies and
advertisers to remind the ITC about the realities of the marketplace?
Paul Taylor, the joint media director of BMP DDB, agrees that it’s just
not possible to keep both the advertising community and the regulators
happy. ‘It’s true that the regulators live in a rarified world where
television is deemed to be there solely to educate and inform,’ he says.
‘The biggest audiences go for lowest common denominator mass
entertainment. The regulators probably don’t really understand that ITV
companies have paid huge sums for their franchises and need to make
money by delivering mass audiences.
‘Of course, there’s a need for television to lead as well as follow
tastes - and Channel 4 certainly seems to want to stay ahead of the
fashion. ITV would make a pretty strong defence of its record in this
respect, too. Experiment does form part of the schedule and there are
highbrow elements there - it’s just that they are kept half-buried and
well away from higher value commercial slots.
‘Having said all that, I still think that the ITC is a useful foil
against unrestrained commercial pressures. It would be quite easy for
ITV to appeal just to the shell-suit audience but we want a balanced
offering. We want to be able to reach Times readers on ITV, too.’
Barry Spencer, the media communications manager of Kraft Jacobs Suchard,
is also surprisingly supportive of the ITC, though he admits that
advertisers don’t always know as much about the programme production and
scheduling side of the business as they pretend they do. ‘Generally, we
are only interested in how programmes perform in delivering audiences.
Broadcasters such as ITV have to come up with the sort of audiences that
advertisers want and find the formats that produce the numbers,’ he
‘As it takes a balanced schedule to do that, that isn’t very different
from the ITC’s view of the remit. In the recent past, ITV has
highlighted the drama side, but it can’t just ignore whole areas of the
audience. So I’m delighted that the ITC is putting pressure on. It’s not
Chris Locke, the deputy managing director of the Media Centre, says that
ITV has been doing pretty well and should be encouraged to keep going.
‘The ITC doesn’t really have much basis for criticism as far as I’m
concerned,’ he states. ‘What I would like the ITC to do is to push ITV
into keeping up the effort for 12 months a year. In the summer, the
network thinks it’s OK to tread water for a while. There is a real
opportunity to increase ratings there, though.
‘But there has been an uplift in quality recently. The ITC may think
police shows are tacky. I think it makes itself look a bit ridiculous
when it comes out with that sort of thing. What does it mean by tacky? A
lot of the programmes it presumably likes are worse. Anything with
Philip Schofield in is tacky. Band of Gold is very tacky. Compare that
with A Touch of Frost or Cracker. And, anyway, what’s wrong with tacky?
Blind Date may be tacky, but it’s quality tack.’