SPOTLIGHT ON: ITV’S RATINGS CHALLENGE: ITV reaps only minor gains as BBC1’s share goes elsewhere - Richard Eyre can claim a peak-time victory but no more, Richard Cook says

Last week something important happened and no-one noticed. Or rather something happened and no-one allowed themselves to notice. When it was revealed that the BBC flagship channel’s share of viewing for 1998 had for the first time fallen below the 30 per cent mark, you might have expected the ITV networks, advertisers and their agencies to have set upon this revelation with considerable excitement.

Last week something important happened and no-one noticed. Or

rather something happened and no-one allowed themselves to notice. When

it was revealed that the BBC flagship channel’s share of viewing for

1998 had for the first time fallen below the 30 per cent mark, you might

have expected the ITV networks, advertisers and their agencies to have

set upon this revelation with considerable excitement.



Bad news for the BBC, after all, is good news for commercial television.

And good news for commercial television has been in desperately short

supply of late.



Suddenly, the talk might no longer have been of ITV merely managing

inevitable decline in a multichannel age, but instead increasing ITV’s

audience share.



Well, not quite. A closer look at the ratings figures shows that the BBC

has not lost out to ITV much at all. Nor has Channel 4 picked up the

slack.



The real winners have been Channel 5 and the cable and satellite

channels.



In fact, ITV overall share fell in the last year from 32.9 to 31.7 per

cent. Still, there is little doubt that the 1998 viewing figures, even

when taken together and carefully weighed, suggest that something might

just have started to change in British broadcasting.



’The bottom line is that ITV has returned figures for peak-time audience

share that are in line with the projections Richard Eyre and the Network

Centre first made. It has got rid of a culture that said decline was

inevitable, and that’s important news for advertisers,’ Jim Marshall,

managing director at MediaVest, points out.



’Eyre says he can improve peak-time ratings this year and I am now

inclined to think that he might just be able to pull it off,’ he

adds.



The disappointment for the BBC is all the more poignant since in recent

years, BBC1 has been a particularly sharp thorn in ITV’s flesh,

capturing natural ITV peak-time audiences with a powerful blend of more

intuitive scheduling and more consistent programming. But while ITV may

be starting to win the peak-time battle, some pundits claim that it

nevertheless faces an uphill struggle.



’Richard Eyre might have said that ITV could put on share in peak-time

in the coming year but, frankly, I think he was goaded into making that

statement by ad agencies,’ one media director says.



’I can’t believe he means it. In reality, a fall of less than one

percentage point would be a triumph.



Yes, they just about achieved their first year’s share target, but they

just had to do that. It’s going to be much, much tougher if not

impossible to actually improve share.’



Last year, ITV had additional help from the World Cup, although coverage

for that quadrennial ratings winner was shared with the BBC. The World

Cup aside, much of the network’s best results came courtesy of a strong

autumn schedule and, in 1999, a repositioned News At Ten will allow the

network to show the uninterrupted films and dramas that it has been

itching to roll out for years.



’That might make a distinct difference but the 60 Minutes documentary

programme that will follow is hardly going to be a ratings winner,’ the

Media Business Group’s director, Paul van Barthold, says. ’What made the

difference last year and could help make even more of a difference this

time is that the Network Centre has adopted a more rigorous approach to

scheduling.



’For example, the Shane Ritchie Experience wasn’t working so they

promptly took it off. And when London’s Burning failed to attract

audiences to Saturday nights it was pulled after only a couple of

shows.



This sort of flexibility will help it in the coming year, even if it’s

got a lot to achieve if it is to increase the peak-time viewing

share.’



In truth, no-one is doubting the enormity of the task of actually

putting on ratings. But at least, after last week’s news, far fewer

people now remain certain that it can’t be done.



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