Media: All about ... TV channels' winter schedules

Broadcasters are showing their hands to advertisers.

It is the time of the year when the major broadcasters reveal their winter schedules. With the erosion of mass audiences, as multi-channel TV takes hold and viewers migrate to alternative media such as the internet, the winter schedule is the one card broadcasters still have left up their sleeves.

That is especially true for ITV1. which revealed its line-up this week, the last of the major commercial broadcasters to do so. The ability to build mass audiences is the only point of difference between ITV1 and its commercial rivals, and the winter schedule is the backbone of its calendar year, when TV viewing is at its highest. For advertisers such as Pepsi, O2, Barclays and Ford, it is a critical part of any schedule, allowing the big brand advertisers the chance to show off their wares in front of large audiences.

Although mass audiences no longer have the potency they once did, the broadcasters still attach a great deal of importance to their winter line-ups. Their sales teams invest many man-hours at this time of the year presenting to media agencies and advertisers.

Broadcasters have not always embarked on this annual schmooze-fest with the market. The ritual dates back to the late 80s and early 90s, when the newly independent Channel 4 had yet to gain momentum. Advertisers were paying artificially high rates because of a combination of inflation and ITV's monopoly. Also, many wanted to see a fifth terrestrial TV channel emerge to smash ITV's dominance of the market, but that was a long way from happening.

With ITV under pressure to produce more drama and fewer soaps, and advertisers worried that it took a downmarket, mass-market approach, the channel resolved to become more advertiser-friendly, and so the concept of upfront presentations was born.

The idea comes from the US, where there is a greater tradition of collaboration between advertisers and TV programme-makers. However, some have questioned the value of the presentations in an increasingly commoditised market. Unlike the US, where advertisers commit upfront to specific shows, sometimes as early as spring, media buyers in the UK buy a ratings package based on the station average price.

1. ITV is pinning its hopes on its autumn schedule to turn around its flagging fortunes. This follows a dismal summer, when the boost it expected from the World Cup failed to materialise. The network has gone back to basics down the tried and tested route. Highlights include Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren and Cracker with Robbie Coltrane, as well as live Champions League football.

2. Channel 4 is hoping that a new entertainment show, fronted by the Welsh warbler Charlotte Church, will pull in the punters. Other highlights of the channel's schedule include a drama based on the relationship between Lord Longford and the Moors murderer Myra Hindley, and the return of Jamie Oliver's School Dinners series.

3. Sky's new director of programmes, Richard Woolfe, is taking Sky One in a new direction with its autumn schedule. The channel, which previously had a broader offering, will now place greater emphasis on entertainment programming. Highlights include the new reality series The Race, the Ruby Wax-fronted Cirque de Celebrite, and Terry Pratchett's Hogfather, starring Sir David Jason.

4. Five's autumn schedule features new comedy, entertainment and drama. The channel has commissioned Tripping Over, a six-part series created by the Cold Feet writer Mike Bullen. Les Dennis joins five in Speculation, a new primetime, weekday gameshow made by the Big Brother maker, Endemol. The channel also has high hopes for Respectable - a drama set in a suburban brothel. Five is also making its first foray on to the multichannel platform this autumn, with the launch of five US and five Life.

5. Although Viacom Brand Solutions - the advertising sales operation for MTV, VH1 and Nickelodeon - is one of the smaller players in the TV market, its winter presentation is still popular with media buyers and advertisers, who value its young, cash-rich audi-ence demographic. Highlights include a new comedy starring Paul Kaye on MTV and a new channel, MTV Flux.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...

BROADCASTERS

- In the second quarter of 2006, ITV saw its share of impact decline by 3 points to 31.7 per cent, according to the IPA Trends in Television Viewing report. The autumn schedule is a chance to turn its peformance around and the ITV Sales team is key to this. Gary Digby, the ITV Sales director, says: "I feel very passionately about the fact that we can go out and talk about our shows. You could argue it's a commoditised market and a contract rights renewal world, but I don't think buyers and advertisers see programmes as a commodity, otherwise what's the point in spending £800 million on first-run commissioned programmes?"

- The winter schedule presentations are also an opportunity to drum up interest from advertisers in a particular show. Digby says: "When the advance booking deadlines arrive, it is it not uncommon for advertisers to make a specific request to ITV about booking space around a particular programme."

AGENCIES

- Autumn is one of the busiest times of the year for media buyers. Chris Haywood, the head of broadcast at ZenithOptimedia, explains that all the major broadcasters organise presentations. He will attend six to eight at this time of the year, with larger broadcasters such as ITV organising more than one.

ADVERTISERS

- However, advertisers remain unconvinced about the usefulness of upfront presentations. Ian Armstrong, the manager of customer communication at Honda, says: "I don't usually go along to them. They will usually try to sex them up by using a 'name' to introduce them. The acid test is whether there is specific programming that will work for the brief we issue to Starcom."

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