Like Bill Clinton, a fellow chief executive of sorts, the new man
at ITV has settled on the first 100 days of his reign as a crucial first
test. Clinton’s were supposed to usher in a number of social and
economic changes, the like of which hadn’t been seen in the US for 30
years or more. They ultimately floundered, largely as a result of their
own ambition, as plans for massive health reform, for example, were
blocked by an intransigent Congressional opposition.
Richard Eyre, the new chief executive of ITV, has, appropriately enough,
set a rather more modest goal. His first 100 days, which will end at the
beginning of January, will be occupied merely by the search for a
cohesive strategy, not by the implementation of it. But at the end of
that search the problem facing him will be similar to Clinton’s - how to
force change through a body that is nominally united in government, but
in practice wielding the power to block change and aggressively promote
its own interests.
Clinton’s problem is that his every decision is ultimately voted on by
Congress. Eyre has just as tricky a problem. He has to steer change past
those self-interested citizens of ITV - the stations themselves. The
comparison is, perhaps, not as fanciful as it might seem. As Aristotle
tells us, man is a political animal. It just so happens that ITV Man is
a particularly ferocious example of the breed.
’The extent to which Eyre is allowed to be his own man, using as many
diplomatic skills as he can muster, will be vital if he hopes to prosper
in the job,’ comments one agency director, who prefers not to be named -
at least until Eyre has had a chance to show what he can do.
It’s no secret that the job of the head of the ITV network has, in the
past at least, involved making use of the art of productive compromise
as much as anything. Influencing every decision made at the Network
Centre is the fact that it was established to serve ITV company
paymasters who compete with each other for network commissions,
advertising revenue and distribution deals.
For example, if Granada, the maker of Cracker, wants that programme to
run at the weekend, partly because it owns LWT and it thinks Cracker is
an attractive show for LWT advertisers, what does the Network Centre do
? In theory, Eyre’s new director of planning and strategy, David Bergg,
decides independently when to schedule the shows to maximise the whole
ITV output. In practice, this process has seen more horse trading than
the Newmarket Sales.
Again, there is the position of the biggest ITV companies as programme
suppliers to the network. In theory, the centre is obliged to source
programming from only two (not necessarily mutually exclusive) sources -
at least one quarter must come from the independent production sector.
Everything should come from the source that provides the biggest, most
desirable audiences. Again, in the past this has not always seemed to
have been the case, at least to independent producers.
The suspicion that the independent sector is squeezed out by the ITV
companies is a constant complaint. Last year, an eight-part ITV
night-time commission attracted a staggering 386 proposals from 155
different companies. Staggering, that is, when you discover that price
negotiations for the programming started at the less than princely sum
of pounds 8,000 an hour. Most of these bids were from small independents
falling over themselves to show ITV that they too had something to
contribute, and that the highest possible audience numbers are not
always generated by a reliance on the ITV companies themselves.
’The Network Centre is supposed to promote a level playing field, but
how can it? Independents don’t really have the same access as the ITV
companies that are the centre’s shareholders,’ Ray Thompson, the founder
of the independent, Cloud 9 Screen Entertainment, argues.
Thompson had a difficult time negotiating with the Network Centre’s
previous regime, even with the partial backing of ITV companies. The
former Howard’s Way scriptwriter last year took two sponsored
productions unsuccessfully to the centre, including the Nick Berry
vehicle, Winners and Losers, through Yorkshire.
Thompson was also knocked back by the Network Centre on the Enid Blyton
series the company eventually made with the Channel 5 shareholder, CLT,
and sold to more than 50 countries and Channel 5 itself.
It is true the independent sector has consistently won more than the
statutory 25 per cent minimum of commissions and is now running at
around 35 per cent of ITV hours, if not of ITV money. But there is a
real danger that the increasing competition in the market may lead the
ITV companies to challenge that share. One of the issues facing Eyre and
his team is how to make sure this competition actually benefits ITV
where it matters most to advertisers - in the ratings. In this summer’s
season, independent producers were responsible for 19 of the top 50
rated shows. The Network Centre is supposed to prevent the companies
that control ITV from commissioning pretty much what they want, but
insiders confirm there will be pressure on that relationship if ITV’s
’The range of programmes and of programming suppliers for ITV is
probably not going to be as great in two or three years as it is now,
but that will make it harder for everyone, not just the independent
sector,’ one ITV Broadcasting executive, comments.
But if the relationship between independents and the ITV programme
producers is likely to subject the new team to a little covert political
pressure, the fundamental problem Eyre will inherit is well known.
Audiences are falling because of fragmentation and an increasing
inability to make the sort of programmes - especially high-rating light
entertainment shows - that made the network’s reputation. The falling
audiences have sent impacts into freefall and led to spiralling airtime
inflation and a souring of relationships between ITV and the advertisers
and agencies that support it.
Almost Eyre’s first step - after he met privately with the Incorporated
Society of British Advertisers to pour oil on these troubled waters -
was to acknowledge this difficulty. ’Our relationships with our
customers have been too bad for too long,’ he admitted. ’I know your
frustration is now so ingrained that you have felt yourselves compelled
to call for radical solutions,’ he said, in what was effectively an
inaugural address to the ad community. ’But I appeal to you to work with
us - the proposals being made are, I know, not your policy ends in
themselves, but a cry to ITV to take seriously the dissatisfaction of
advertisers and to deal with it. To get the bloody ratings up.’
This is not a straightforward task. The problem is not something that
can be solved easily by throwing money at it. ITV has the highest single
channel budget in Europe and last year spent more than pounds 600
million on programming. It supported this programming with a pounds 5
million ad campaign.
In 1996, in an average month, it typically produced six of the top ten
most popular programmes in the UK, 14 of the top 20 and 20 of the top
But that doesn’t mean it has stopped the rot.
Already this year those statistics have slipped back. Coronation Street
might have overtaken EastEnders after it was sexed up a little by Brian
Park, but the network is now responsible for just five of the top ten,
11 of the top 20 and 17 of the top 30 programmes. And that after the
launch of Channel 5 failed to match even modest predictions. That
potential ratings rival could eventually claim a 10 per cent share, some
analysts had claimed.
Now, with viewing figures stuck at around 3 per cent (although before
the final transmitters are fully operational), even half that seems some
way off. The real problems are not coming from satellite and niche
stations but from a resurgent BBC, which this summer clocked up nine of
the top 20 rated shows, against the two it managed just two years
One year ago, Eyre’s predecessor, Marcus Plantain, explained how ITV was
to position itself and what would constitute an acceptable performance,
bearing in mind that when he arrived at the network share was more than
43 per cent - and when he left it was just more than 36 per cent.
’The question is, how do we make certain of our place in this
multi-channel environment?’ he said. ’We simply have to take the largest
share of the viewing cake. We can’t realistically stay the same size in
terms of absolute numbers with all these new cable and satellite
stations and Channel 5 coming online, so our objective is to continue to
be the biggest single channel and to take the biggest share of the
One year on, Eyre has to go even further to reassure advertisers. He has
to put a timetable on change. So far, that timetable is still fuzzy
around the edges. The plan is that the new team should begin to help
arrest audience decline by next year, Eyre says, and then go on to show
improvement in each of the next two years.
’I think Eyre’s job at ITV is not dissimilar to the one that faced Tony
Blair when he took over the Labour Party,’ Paul van Barthold, broadcast
director at the Media Business group, says. ’While I’m sure Richard will
love me comparing him with Blair, we all want to see New ITV; an ITV
that makes bold decisions about some of its most cherished programmes.
Richard stresses he has the authority to do the job his way, without
interference from the ITV companies, and I think we should all give him
time to show that he has.’
There are tough decisions to take almost all over the schedule. The
Bill, for example, is signed up in a deal that guarantees ITV the show
until 2001. It’s still a hugely popular show, averaging more than eight
million viewers over the summer. But, in fact, that represented a slip
of 16 per cent on a year ago, largely because the BBC has had real
success in scheduling popular documentaries against the show. It’s how
Eyre and his team deal with that sort of problem that is likely to shape
the effectiveness of his administration.
Eyre’s pedigree suggests ITV has chosen wisely. It’s easy to forget just
how poor the impression of commercial radio was when he took up the
reins at Capital Radio. Eyre had impressed as the media director of
Bartle Bogle Hegarty for his trademark intelligence and approachability.
He played a full part in helping Capital thrive against the additional
radio competition in the London market. Not only that, he helped radio
in general get its act together and, through the Radio Advertising
Bureau, made the advertising world take radio seriously as a medium.
There are some similarities - ITV is also an impressive brand now
struggling and seeking to blame the struggle not on its own actions but
on market dynamics outside its control. But ITV is a bigger challenge
Fortunately, Eyre enters the job with a couple of important plus points
- he has inherited a rejuvenated sports line-up that includes the Five
Nations Rugby and, for the first time in more than five years, the FA
’The BBC and even Channel 4 have proved broadcast erosion is not
inevitable in a multi-channel environment,’ David Cuff, Initiative
Media’s broadcast director, points out. ’I’m going to reserve judgment
until the 100 days are up and Eyre talks to us all in the New Year to
outline his new strategy for the channel. But one thing seems clear:
ITV has to get back to taking risks on new programming. It’s only a
couple of years ago that it was producing great drama like Cracker and
Soldier, Soldier, and it’s just lost its way by playing it safe and not
lining up replacements in time. Eyre now needs to take risks.
Unfortunately, he can’t afford to fail.’