Media Forum: Are ITV's ratings a real worry?

Should ITV's short-term prospects be a major cause for concern?

Poor ITV. It's a ripe old 50 this autumn, with the Queen herself coming to dinner to mark the occasion, but the network seems determined to mark its anniversary with a truly miserable summer. On the other hand, we sort of expect this - an ITV crisis every couple of years or so has become a very British institution.

It's surely rather reassuring that, despite a consolidation process that swept away all the old regional ITV brands (and their world-class penchant for squabbling), its core values remain miraculously intact.

All broadcasters get it wrong now and then and, arguably, ITV is subjected to closer scrutiny than any other broadcaster, including the BBC. So when it offers up the likes of Celebrity Love Island or Celebrity Wrestling and the ratings take a tumble, then the press has a field day.

Followed, of course, by the City - because, more than ever these days, loss of audience translates directly into loss of revenue, and the contract rights renewal remedy put in place to stop ITV abusing its airtime market dominance gives it even less room to manoeuvre.

To cap it all, the advertising market was already looking soft heading into summer. How worried should advertisers and agencies be? Can we have any confidence that ITV can get itself back on track sooner rather than later?

The initial response from Mick Desmond, the chief executive of ITV Broadcasting, is that the question is unfairly loaded. Those who jump to glib conclusions should look at some of the actual figures, he suggests. He states: "Our audience decline across the first 18 days of May was less than the decline at Channel 4 or five, for instance. And, where Celebrity Love Island is concerned, people are making a call without knowing what the strategy is or realising past hits such as I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! have performed in a similar way early on."

He points out Celebrity Love Island performed well against the 16- to 34-year-old demographic. "It's actually delivering a very attractive audience in the slot where we always intended it to be," Desmond says. "Big Brother starts this week and last year we were hammered by Big Brother against the 16 to 34 audience. We would have been criticised if we hadn't addressed that."

Kevin Brown, the strategic partner at Nitrosoul, agrees that it's all too easy to beat up ITV. He comments: "For all the criticism levelled at ITV, it still gives advertisers commercial access to the biggest shared-viewing occasions.

It is now successfully navigating the new digital world and is investing in helping to articulate the value of television as a medium. We should embrace that as a positive development. In a crowded media landscape, media brands will become more important than ever in providing consumers with a set of values and promises to help them navigate the media maze. Who wouldn't want to be ITV in that jungle?"

But Mark Jarvis, the head of media at Carat, has a feeling that the audience situation is going to get worse before it gets better. "Where ratings are concerned, there are a couple of factors: first, what the competition is up to; second, the fact that ITV doesn't have a big sporting event this summer. Last year, there was the football (the Uefa European Championship 2004), which lasted into July and was a huge property for ITV," he says.

He compares Celebrity Love Island unfavourably with the way Channel 4 has turned Big Brother into something that's almost a national institution.

"Channel 4 sexed it up successfully last year and it continues to prove that the public has an appetite for good-quality, non-cheesy reality television."

Chris Hayward, the head of broadcast at ZenithOptimedia, is similarly concerned. He believes the commissioning executives at ITV keep underestimating the challenge of some of the genres they target.

He concludes: "The combination of celebrity and reality show is a very hard one to crack. If you go down that route, you have to be absolutely sure about what you're doing. You have to understand the format and the outcome you're trying to achieve and then get the casting absolutely right.

"If, as ITV now says, Celebrity Love Island was never intended as a shag-fest, why did it set its stall out in that way? Why did it give it the title it did? There needs to be a sense of urgency now. ITV needs to raise its game again."

NO - Mick Desmond, chief executive, ITV Broadcasting

"People will throw rocks if they feel strongly about something but if they are not careful they will create an environment where people are scared of taking risks. We have had a couple of bad weeks but we will bounce back."

NO - Kevin Brown, strategic partner, Nitrosoul

"Advertisers realise the challenges of new product development these days - and within TV the challenge is to innovate. Success will always be tempered with some failure. Ironically, the failures are a sign of momentum."

YES - Mark Jarvis, head of media, Carat

"ITV faces long-term decline, but what continues to concern people is the rate of decline. Its programming problems are not down to a lack of money - at least, I hope they're not. There seems a real problem with ideas."

YES - Chris Hayward, head of broadcast, ZenithOptimedia

"People will look for any excuse to give ITV a kicking but it has to take a look at what it's doing. You would think CRR and the knowledge that audience and revenue are now tied together on ITV1 would have guaranteed no complacency."

Got a view? E-mail us at campaign@haynet.com.