MEDIA FORUM: ITV schedule arrives but some are left in the dark - ITV’s audience share is under scrutiny once more but the good news is that the network has a new schedule, unveiled last week. The bad news is that it forgot to tell many advertiser

It’s really innovative, right. There’s these two blokes - one’s called David and the other one isn’t - and they come on, right, and they sort of muck about a bit and make it all up as they go along. And the thing is that this whole performance not only costs a fortune to make - David and the other one are getting paid the GDP of a small Third World country for doing it - but there’s so much riding on its success that it doesn’t bear thinking about.

It’s really innovative, right. There’s these two blokes - one’s

called David and the other one isn’t - and they come on, right, and they

sort of muck about a bit and make it all up as they go along. And the

thing is that this whole performance not only costs a fortune to make -

David and the other one are getting paid the GDP of a small Third World

country for doing it - but there’s so much riding on its success that it

doesn’t bear thinking about.



Some would call it the live, unscripted, improvisational show, Baddiel

and Skinner Unplugged, which is one of the highlights of the ITV spring

and summer schedule unveiled last week. Others might reckon that the

scenario bears more than a passing resemblance to the way the whole ITV

network is being run at the moment. One way or another, ITV’s programme

director David Liddiment is more deeply into the big-risk zone than he’s

ever been before.



So what? That’s what he’s paid for, isn’t it? And where risk-taking is

concerned, ITV will protest that it’s always damned if it does and

damned if it doesn’t. But you could argue that, on this occasion,

Liddiment - supremely talented as he undoubtedly is - has been asked to

perform without a proper script. And that really is scary.



The future ownership of the network is up in the air and a replacement

for Richard Eyre, ITV’s recently departed chief executive, is proving

hard to find. The Independent Television Commission is about to

deliberate on the success or otherwise of ITV scheduling efforts since

the demise of News at Ten - and will do so against a background of a

worrying return of cost inflation on the channel.



So it goes without saying that this is a hugely important schedule.

Other highlights include Cor Blimey!, a drama about an off-screen

romance between advertisers and ITV (shouldn’t that be Sid James and

Barbara Windsor?



- ed) that lasted into the 60s; and then there’s Michael Barrymore’s

acting debut in Bob Martin, a programme title strangely reminiscent of a

brand of pet laxative. There will, of course, be a line-up of the usual

matinee idol suspects including the likes of Ross Kemp and John Hannah;

Millionaire obviously remains a bankable fixture; and there will be tons

of football presented with a twinkle by Des Lynam.



What do agencies think of it? Colm Feeney, the broadcast director of

Western says it has to be seen in the context of recent poor audience

performance. Over the first quarter of this year, adult impacts are down

around 6 per cent year on year and ABC1s are down 11 per cent. Add in

increased demand and we’re looking at inflation nearing 20 per cent.



Feeney states: ’It’s a good old-fashioned drama-heavy ITV schedule - and

that’s fine, drama is what ITV is traditionally good at. I’m not at all

sure about the Ross Kemp thing, but there are a couple of pretty decent

ones in there - a spin-off from The Bill that could be hilarious and

another adaptation of a literary detective Inspector Rebus, starring

John Hannah, which could be the new Morse. From our point of view it’s

also excellent that there’s loads of sport (Champion’s League and Euro

2000 football).



’So we can’t really complain, but I don’t see anything here to arrest

the recent audience declines. David Liddiment shouldn’t be too worried

at this point because he’s still ring-fenced to some extent. The

problems will come if the brickbats start to fly again.’



How far are we from seeing those flying brickbats? Tom George, the head

of broadcast at Zenith Media, would be disappointed if they came sooner

rather than later - he argues that certain sections of the industry turn

on ITV far too quickly and thoughtlessly. ’That’s the penalty you pay

for being brand leader, I suppose,’ he says. ’Richard Eyre did such a

good job of restoring ITV’s credibility and delivering two years of

excellent performance that the third year was always going to be very

difficult. There’s almost a cyclical aspect to it - any success you have

one year is a rod for your own back the next year. As for this schedule,

I think it’s obvious they’re keeping a lot back for the autumn, which

could be absolutely crucial for the network this year.



’But it doesn’t take too detailed an analysis to realise that ITV faces

a very tough time indeed trying to continue its performance in a

reprofiled universe (one in which there are many more homes with access

to multichannel TV).’



Others, though, are less inclined to be charitable. Nick Theakstone, the

broadcast director of MediaVest, comments: ’We’re still waiting on

information about the new schedule from ITV - maybe that in itself is a

sign of the times. ITV’s performance recently has been appalling and

they’re going to have to go a long way to meet expectations. What we’ve

seen recently is the network relentlessly pursuing Millionaire and I

think they are on the verge of overplaying their hand. The fact is that

the void left by Richard Eyre needs to be filled. We need someone to

steer the ship.’



Andy Jones, the TV buying director at Universal McCann, who was also

left off the ITV mailing list, tends to agree. Jones points out that the

network is storing up all sorts of problems for itself. He states: ’Some

of us are almost forgetting that ITV exists these days because it’s not

on Sky Digital and it’s not on the electronic programme guide. We could

soon reach a situation where ITV isn’t available in five million

homes.



The impact of that could be profound, especially on younger viewers.



’But, of course, the schedule is a big issue especially in the context

of what was happening in March, when ITV lost a fifth of its audience

year on year. And it was even more horrendous when you look at some

important demographics in some regions. One week last month, for

instance, young adults on Carlton were down 40 per cent. And ITV is

selling prime peak to new advertisers, such as dotcoms. In London the

situation is particularly awful because it’s the focus of all the dotcom

activity and London audiences are generally worse than other regions. I

think people are ready to start questioning ITV. This new schedule had

better perform.’



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