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