Media: Forum - Market reacts to ITV’s audience share doldrums/With Richard Eyre at ITV, all was sweetness and light in the relationship between the network and its advertising customers. Earlier this week, the cornerstone of that relationship - au

What Richard Eyre giveth, he may also taketh away. It was perhaps appropriate that Eyre, in his last public act as the ITV network’s chief executive, should be allowed to begin dismantling its ambitious audience share targets. Peaktime audience commitments were the most distinctive, innovative and acclaimed aspects of his tenure as ITV’s first network boss. They were his baby.

What Richard Eyre giveth, he may also taketh away. It was perhaps

appropriate that Eyre, in his last public act as the ITV network’s chief

executive, should be allowed to begin dismantling its ambitious audience

share targets. Peaktime audience commitments were the most distinctive,

innovative and acclaimed aspects of his tenure as ITV’s first network

boss. They were his baby.



This was always going to feel like the end of an era - now that’s doubly

true. And this really was the last act: Eyre joins Pearson Television on

1 February. With further consolidation within ITV now on the cards,

Eyre’s successor, whenever he or she is appointed, could face a very

tough time. As well as internal politics, the external situation is

challenging - in a fragmenting market, growth just isn’t an issue any

more. ITV must, once more, face up to its lot in life - that of managing

decline.



The omens lately have not been great. And if the Eyre years come to be

regarded with affection, many people will forget the fact that the

targets weren’t actually met. Peaktime audience share was to be 38 per

cent in 1998, 39 per cent in 1999 and 40 per cent in 2000. Last year the

figure achieved was actually 38.8 per cent. Close, but no cigar.



As the performance ambitions are reined in, will we also now see the end

of an era of mutual understanding between ITV and its customers? Jim

Marshall, the chief executive of MediaVest and spokesman on the future

of television for the Media Policy Group of the Institute of

Practitioners in Advertising, says that the most worrying development is

that the ITV Network Centre didn’t consult the advertising industry when

setting its new course. He states: ’I think it would be useful for ITV

to continue to set its audience targets in consultation with advertisers

and agencies. We realise that there are extenuating circumstances -

digital, for instance, has helped drive forward the penetration of

multi-channel television. They’d have to admit, though that there are

circumstances on the other side of the equation too. The targets were

originally set before it was able to move News at Ten. Of course, ITV

will feel aggrieved if there’s criticism and, in some respects, people

do appreciate that it’s a thankless task. The relationship between TV

and its customers is often uncomfortable, even in peacetime. But we’re

worried only because ITV is so important to us and, I’d have to say,

that for it to feel that it doesn’t need input from us is worrying.’



There are many people on the agency side who have worries about the

overall shape of ITV these days. In the past when mergers were in the

offing, it took its eye off the ball rather badly. Could that happen

again? There are also concerns that the network has been throwing money

at the programming problem, buying in Bond movies rather than

commissioning astutely.



Mick Desmond, the chief executive of Granada Media, says that agencies

can continue to trust ITV - recent gains will not be squandered. He

states: ’David Liddiment (ITV programming boss) has always been the key

figure in scheduling terms and that remains the case. Eyre’s role has

been to shield David and we will be appointing another strong individual

in that role as soon as we can - it certainly won’t be delayed by any

structural considerations. We now have to fight in two types of homes.

In terrestrial homes we have to keep the BBC at bay, while in the

rapidly growing multi-channel market we have to fight an even harder

battle, especially against younger demographics.



’We need to rethink what constitutes a strong performance for the

network. In the past, when there weren’t targets, it was easy for

customers to criticise and for management to duck the issues.

Performance has been strong in 1999 and I think it’s a reasonable

ambition now to hold on to what we’ve got. I’d like to think that as we

rethink our targets, the dialogue with our customers will continue.’



Should they feel reassured? John Storey, group board director of Media

Audits, says that a strong ITV is good for the business as a whole - and

he agrees that we might have to rethink the way we measure that

strength.



The future is not just about share of the peaktime audience but Storey

wonders whether ITV has the boldness to take this fully on board. ’It

will be the quality of the viewers’ engagement with programming that

will be the key to its success. ITV has to have a bold commissioning

policy and then promote those programmes using every media vehicle

available.’



But what of the advertisers themselves? In the past, the Incorporated

Society of British Advertisers has often been ITV’s most persistent

critic.



Are the old worries resurfacing? Bernard Balderston, UK media manager of

Procter & Gamble and chairman of ISBA’s TV action group, doesn’t see why

that should be the case. He comments: ’I’m not surprised that ITV is

looking again at audience targets. With the rapid increase in digital it

has become clear that the 40 per cent target is going to be

challenging.



And we would neither expect nor want ITV to sacrifice quality of

programming and audience in pursuing a 40 per cent target. What Eyre

said about audiences when he arrived needed to be said, but there is a

school of thought maintaining that primetime audiences aren’t the whole

story.



’I don’t see why the relationship between advertisers and ITV has to

deteriorate. But then it all depends on how they go about replacing

Eyre. The new person will bring their own ideas. It will also depend on

how the network addresses issues related to possible mergers. But the

atmosphere is better than it was. You don’t have to be Albert Einstein

to work out that when a majority of the population has at least ten

channels - and that situation isn’t all that far away - ITV will

struggle mightily to maintain its audience share. But if it continues to

invest, if it continues to be proactive and if it continues to be

flexible in its scheduling, it will continue to have advertiser support.

What we will not accept is the half-hearted complacency there was before

Eyre arrived. ITV must be seen to be trying its absolute best.’



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