Media Spotlight: UK TV market wakes up to the implications of CRR

What effect has the Contract Rights Renewal procedure had on ITV, Jeremy Lee asks.

Given that agency estimates suggest ITV could stand to lose £100 million in ad revenue next year, it makes you wonder just how desperate its chief executive, Charles Allen, was to force the Carlton and Granada merger through.

The Contract Rights Renewal procedure was a major precondition of the merger and a wheeze thought up by the Granada sales division.

It means that, for the first time, media agencies have the right to reduce their share of clients' ad budgets to ITV1 by the same amount that the TV station's audience falls, without being penalised on the price.

With dramatic year-on-year declines for most of the key trading audiences, it is only now that the full implications of CRR are beginning to appear.

No-one is surprised that ITV1's share of commercial viewing has continued to fall, given the continued growth of the digital platforms (in fact, its decline has not been as severe as some had predicted). Yet, if agencies opt to use CRR, the estimates suggesting that the broadcaster could find itself with a £100 million hole in its pocket.

Incidentally, in a remarkable coincidence, this sum matches the £100 million of savings that Allen promised the City he could achieve through the merger.

So you'd have thought that the prospect of this sum of ad revenue coming out of ITV and sloshing round the TV market would have other broadcasters who, with the exception of Sky, have seen a growth in share of impacts, rubbing their hands with glee and the ITV sales teams burying their head in their hands.

This is not yet the case. Certainly, rival broadcasters are beginning to change their views of the CRR remedy - when it was introduced it was considered an unworkable fudge - but the joy is not universally unconstrained just yet.

Mike Parker, the head of strategic sales at Channel 4, displays some confidence. "In the first year of CRR, ITV has an enormous incentive to grow or hold on to audience share, yet the year so far has seen it lose audiences. Channel 4 is very happy to be seeing audience growth so far this year and particularly to see that growth coming from a whole range of different programmes," he says.

But Mark White, the executive director of sales at five, errs on the side of caution. "The positive aspect of CRR is that money can follow audience out of ITV at a parallel rate, without agencies being penalised on price," he says.

This caution is understandable. After all, given past experiences when ITV's audience share fell but agencies did not reduce their share of budgets accordingly, it is easy to see why the Champagne corks at rival broadcasters aren't popping just yet.

Sceptics argue that because it is not incumbent on the agencies to invoke their right to use CRR (although those with a historically disproportionately high ITV commitment, such as MindShare and ZenithOptimedia, are likely to want to do so), ITV won't haemorrhage the amount it should.

And the sales team at ITV itself is not likely to take the prospect of £100 million disappearing from its bottom line lying down. It will look to minimise any share withdrawal from ITV1 by giving incentives to agencies to maintain their existing share levels.

This could take the form of increased airtime discounts, although there is some dispute whether, given the consolidation of major buying points, there is much potential discount left in the market.

A more likely route is that it will look to recoup the money within the ITV portfolio of channels - ITV2, ITV News Channel and the soon-to-launch ITV3, which is due to hit the screens this September.

But the network will have to be careful. In his first periodic report, the Ofcom adjudicator, David Connolly, indicated that he had received informal allegations that ITV had been involved in the illegal practice of conditionally selling the ITV portfolio of channels.

Andy Jones, the joint managing director of Universal McCann, agrees that ITV will be careful. "I don't think ITV will attempt to leverage ITV2 and ITV News Channel. It has to stick to the letter of the law," he says.

It is unlikely, with the prospect of an Ofcom investigation, that ITV will force this issue. And the digital offering ITV2 is performing strongly in its own right and deserves an increase in ad share.

Graham Duff, the managing director of ITV Sales, is optimistic that the autumn schedule will deliver some big-rating programmes and put the network back on a more even keel. But it will have a job catching up against a high audience benchmark from last year.

"ITV needs to have an exceptional autumn if it is to make up. It may do OK with the football but, set against the backdrop of last year's Rugby World Cup, it's going to be difficult," Jones says.

However you cut it, ITV is going to be hit by a decline in ad revenue next year, although it may be less than the £100 million suggested.

Which makes you wonder whether ITV shareholders would have been better off with stock in an unmerged company before the CRR solution had been devised.

CHANGING SHARE OF UK TELEVISION VIEWING

% change year-on-year share

Channel ABC1 adults 16-34 adults

ITV1 -3 -9

Channel 4 +10 -2

Five +6 -2

Multichannel +10 +3

Sky One -6 -21

Sky Channels +4 -5

Barb data 1 January to 26 May 2004

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