If only every night of ITV was as good as last Saturday's

For a while on Saturday night I thought I'd entered a time warp. One where the Saturday evening ITV schedule was full of popular and entertaining programming that advertisers would be half interested in advertising around, writes Ian Darby.

For one week only the ITV Saturday schedule had 'Popstars: The Rivals', 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire?' and 'I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here' back to back. Three palpable hits with 'Popstars' and 'I'm a Celebrity' skewed toward a young audience. The BBC struggled and ITV1 had its best Saturday since February. Its share during 'Popstars' was more than 40% with the BBC well behind.

Saturday rounded off a relatively successful week for the Network. 'I'm a Celebrity' seemed like a cunning ruse to knock David Liddiment, Steve Morrison and Dawn Airey out of the headlines with the news of Darren, Tony and Tara. But the show captured imaginations and audience share when ITV needed it most.

It remains to be seen if Popstars can emulate its success of last year, but it was encouraging to see McDonald's, a major brand, in place as its sponsor. I was just disappointed not to see the shameless Geri Halliwell bingeing on burgers during judging. But that would be a fantasy too far.

The ad revenue projections for October also offered some encouragement for the besieged Carlton and Granada sales teams. Okay, so an increase of close to 10% on a low base is hardly a raging success, but at least it's a move in the right direction. While its share is inevitably declining, at least there are signs that the network is fighting back. The rest of the schedule didn't look too bad either -- Martin Clune's drama premiere, 'A for Acid', was good, and a strong film offering including a 'Star Wars' season and 'The Lost World: Jurassic Park' bodes well for the autumn schedule.

It wasn't all comfortable reading. Analysts at Merrill Lynch were clearly bored with the prospect of an ITV recovery and got in with some early forecasts that December and early 2003 would see a return to falling ad revenues. It might be right, but next year ITV will face more pressing problems.

ITV is undoubtedly under pressure, and a merger between Carlton and Granada has to happen both for viewers and advertisers, not to mention an incoming programming director who should welcome a better resourced and leaner outfit.

But that's for future months. Watching 'The John Thaw Story' last week I was reminded that ITV had created some great TV moments, and not all in the distant past. So I've promised myself that I won't say a bad word about ITV until, well, at least Saturday night when 'I'm a Celebrity' is replaced in the schedule by 'It'll Be Alright On the Night 15'. Somehow I doubt if this will pull in the 11m who watched the final of 'I'm a Celebrity'.

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