FORUM: Will Eyre’s ratings hedge win over airtime buyers? - Has ITV begun to realise that it won’t be allowed to move News at Ten? Will that invalidate the network’s peak-time ratings promises? Last week, the ITV network boss, Rich

A promise of performance will always be a hostage to fortune - even when that promise is given by everyone’s favourite media boss, Richard Eyre. When Eyre took up his position as ITV chief executive last year, he was hailed as the embodiment of both glasnost and perestroika within a network desperately trying to modernise.

A promise of performance will always be a hostage to fortune - even

when that promise is given by everyone’s favourite media boss, Richard

Eyre. When Eyre took up his position as ITV chief executive last year,

he was hailed as the embodiment of both glasnost and perestroika within

a network desperately trying to modernise.

Part of the new openness involved going beyond traditionally vague

promises that ITV would try harder. Back in January, he committed

himself to some numbers - ITV’s share of peak-time audiences would, he

stated, move up to 40 per cent by 2000. The market was impressed -

though cynics might have argued that, desperate times requiring

desperate measures, Eyre needed to pull something special out of the

hat. Would this particular rabbit come back to haunt him?

The answer seems to be yes. Speaking at a Royal Television Society

dinner last week, he seemed to be buying himself a get-out clause. He

stated that if he was forced to drop his plans to do away with News at

Ten, then the network might find it impossible to deliver his ratings


Bad timing, you might think, given that we are about to enter the yearly

autumn negotiation season and ITV made its flagship 1999 presentation to

advertisers and agencies this week. Airtime buyers will use any stick

they can to beat the backs of sales points, especially ITV sales


So will this year’s negotiations include potentially punitive clauses

relating to peak-time ratings performance?

Of course, sales points will attempt to ignore the issue. Or hedge their

bets by arguing that Eyre’s ex cathedra pronouncements are all to be

taken as metaphorical rather than statements of fact. Won’t they? Well,

not at TSMS.

Its chief executive, Jerry Hill, maintains that the peak-time promise

serves to put a line in the sand - one that it is very important for

agencies to take on board. ’Audience shares this year have confounded

recent trends, with ITV in particular having altered course. Next year

it aims to do even better. If planners do not evaluate and respond to

these improvements and its planned output for next year then their

clients will miss out on the benefits.’

And clients have been vociferous in their demands for better audience

performance, especially during peak. That’s why Eyre had to commit

himself in the first place. It would be ironic if, as happened during

the World Cup, they were to lose faith at exactly the wrong moment.

Hill adds: ’The significance of the peak-time commitment is that we have

conclusive proof that high-volume audiences sell more of the

advertiser’s product and provide a genuine competitive advantage for

those who invest.

This will be even more important to clients next year given the

introduction of immeasurable and fragmented audiences and a more

demanding business climate.’

Some observers point out that there’s a related issue here. For the past

couple of years, ITV has been trying to sell its peak-time inventory at

a premium. Is it likely to succeed if it tries to increase that


Some agencies are worried that this increasing obsession with peak-time

means ITV will take its eye off the ball in other areas of the schedule

- could its average ratings share actually go down? Would that


Of course it would. Paul Parashar, broadcast director at New PHD,

states: ’Whatever happens, the key thing is for ITV to demonstrate its

desire to maintain its share of audience against Channel 4, Channel 5

and satellite.

The danger with peak-time targets is that they might believe that, if

they get them right, the rest naturally follows.

’Of course, peak-time is ITV’s unique strength and advertisers are


And yes, because ITV has made an issue of it and has been so categorical

about the 40 per cent figure, I think that some buyers will want to

build it into their negotiations - just as ITV makes categorical demands

about share of advertising budgets.’

Mick Perry, the vice-chairman of Universal McCann, agrees that the

peak-time commitment will not necessarily be the most important figure

used in negotiations. ’It is understandable that ITV will want to make

peak-time the important battleground. That is where the network can

exert some control,’ he points out. ’But share of total commercial

impacts will remain the currency for most buyers. Admittedly, that

figure can hide a multitude of sins and peak is actually what most

advertisers are interested in.’

Will ITV be able to command an increasing premium for peak-time? Perry

admits it’s already happening. ’ITV only delivers 50 per cent of all

commercial impacts, but it takes 60 per cent of TV revenue - and the

margin is wider in peak, which commands higher prices than off-peak,’ he


Chris Boothby, the broadcast director of BBJ Media Services, concedes

that ITV has had a good year. But it was helped by a change in ratings

research methodology and the extraordinary audience boost that came from

the World Cup. The underlying trends, he implies, are less


He states: ’ITV is still losing audience share to its commercial

competitors and, with some younger audiences, the network’s share has

dropped below 50 per cent, threatening its position as a ’must have’ on

certain schedules.

We all want a strong ITV, however, and recognise that ITV peak does

offer unique programming and audiences which will deliver effective

coverage and environment. It is important, therefore, that Richard Eyre

and his team keep the focus on delivering a strong peak product.’

Boothby argues that the News at Ten issue shouldn’t dominate strategic

thinking within the network. He even wonders whether, if it gets its way

and is allowed to move the bulletin, the network could actually fill the

gap, especially when it comes to delivering key ABC1 audiences.

And he warns: ’During next year’s deals, ITV must be able to offer a

realistic and equitable response to a fair and equitable investment. ITV

does still have a valuable and sought-after product but so,

increasingly, do its competitors.’


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