ITV reveals 7% hike in programming budget to £849m

LONDON - ITV has put programming at the heart of its upcoming £4bn merger and revealed that it will now increase its programme budget next year by 7% to £849m.

The £57m year-on-year budget increase, up from the original £792m allocated for the 2002-2003 period, follows the government last week finally giving the go-ahead to the ITV merger after weeks of delay.

However, the 7% increase is only a small increase on ITV's current progamme spend of £836m and the 2003-2004 £849m figure still lags behind that of BBC One, which has been set at £858.9m for 2003.

The 2002-2003 budget was boosted from the original £792m last year, after advertisers threatened to leave ITV out of their schedules, bringing the total spend for the period to £836m.

Investment in ITV's programming budget will be something that advertisers, in particular, will be looking for because it was one of the key benefits arguments put forward when Carlton Communications and Granada announced their intention to merge.

The intention to invest in programming was confirmed at the weekend when Carlton and Granada laid out a seven-point plan. A key part of this was programming, with a focus on developing more "banker" shows and investing in successful format progammes such as 'I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here'.

Andy Zonfrillo, broadcast buying director at MindShare, said: "Given that they've [Carlton and Granada] said there are substantial savings to be made by merging, we would want to see savings reinvested back into the schedule to drive the overall commercial audience and to improve their performance against the BBC."

In a statement, ITV promised increased investment in entertainment, comedy and factual to "maximise opportunities created by the move next year of ITV's late evening news to 10.30pm".

Charles Allen, who will become chief executive of the new company, said: "We have made clear our commitment to shaping a stronger ITV, delivering high-quality television to viewers and advertisers. With greater programme investment than any other commercial broadcaster in Europe, ITV1 has the resources to deliver a winning schedule for the future. This announcement is good news for ITV1's commissioning team, for programme makers and particularly for our viewers."

ITV said the increase will be invested in original drama, including a new series of 'Prime Suspect' this autumn, a second series of hit World War One drama 'Foyle's War', and 'Life Begins', from the creator of 'Cold Feet'.

The money will also fund a new series of Ant & Dec vehicle 'Saturday Night Takeaway', Nick Park's animated series 'Creature Comforts', Frank Skinner's first sitcom 'Shane' and the third run of 'I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here'.

Factual programming this year includes 'Holiday Showdown', from the makers of 'Wife Swap', and a landmark natural history series 'Jungle and Titanic', created using state-of-the-art technology, the statement said.

The budget will also pay for free-to-air sport including coverage of the Rugby World Cup, coverage of the football European Championships 2004, the Uefa Champions League, and Formula 1 motor racing.

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