There is a good yarn about how ITV’s new Sunday-night drama, Victoria, nearly got derailed.
ITV was developing the series when it heard the BBC was working on its own drama about the 19th-century monarch. Cue alarm at ITV, which knew a rival show could ruin its efforts to fill the upmarket hole left in its schedule by the end of Downton Abbey.
So ITV rushed into filming the first episode, even though the scripts for the eight-part series hadn’t been finished. The speedy approach paid off because the BBC dropped its plans and ITV was able to show clips from Victoria to media buyers at its upfronts – its annual preview of forthcoming programmes – in November last year.
The off-screen drama is a reminder that when it comes to the mass-market audiences that advertisers crave, ITV is still the only commercial broadcaster that consistently delivers five million-plus ratings in the UK, and its biggest competition remains the ad-free BBC.
Facebook and Google still don’t offer the unique reach of primetime telly. That is why TV’s share of the UK ad market has remained at about 27% for the past decade, with video-on-demand shoring up revenues.
Autumn is a crucial time because most TV advertising deals are still done on an annual or multi-year basis with agencies between October and Christmas. This year’s trading season will be more jittery than usual because of Brexit and a wobble in the ad market.
The deal-making has already begun. Discovery is in the final throes of deciding whether to stick with Sky for its ad sales, move to Channel 4 or set up its own sales house.
While the negotiations between media owners and agencies happen behind closed doors, a public ritual also takes place with the upfronts, an American innovation that has grown in importance in Britain.
The online platforms, which stage the Internet Advertising Bureau upfronts in October, have forced broadcasters to raise their game. YouTube’s Brandcast is famed for its extravagance.
So, ITV will for a second year stage its upfronts at the London Palladium – and Channel 4, fresh from snatching The Great British Bake Off from BBC One, is also lining up a swish venue. Sky prefers lunching agencies individually at wine merchants Berry Bros.
The one to watch is YouTube, which has moved Brandcast to December and will apparently make it more celebrity-focused and less of a sales pitch. Last year’s claim that brands should put 24% of their TV adspend into YouTube to reach 16- to 24-year-olds went down badly.
Let the negotiating begin.