Media Forum: Should ITV be applauded?

Does ITV deserve congratulations for its new schedule?

When Michael Grade returned to ITV as its executive chairman and would-be saviour almost exactly a year ago, he pointed out (quite reasonably) that he wouldn't be able to work his magic overnight.

You can tinker with the schedule to your heart's content over the short term, but sustained success is down to quality programmes - and they take time to develop.

But ITV's fortunes (or its audiences, at any rate) did seem to pick up almost immediately. 2007 wasn't a vintage year for British TV, not least because of the premium phoneline scams and fakery scandals; but ITV, for the first time in recent memory, managed to outperform its terrestrial rivals. It held its share of viewing year on year, while BBC1, BBC2, five and Channel 4 continued to decline. And in the autumn its viewing share actually increased.

All of which formed a highly encouraging backdrop to the whole-scale relaunch being plotted by Grade and his director of TV, Simon Shaps. Not that the City sees it like this. Last week, ITV's share price hit record lows (at one point it fell beneath the 70p mark) amid concerns over the ad market.

ITV will hope that the schedule changes - the broad outlines were unveiled back in November, and last week we saw the final piece being put in place with the return of News at Ten - contribute to an improvement in this situation.

Other features of the new-look schedule include the removal of soaps from Sundays, a challenging Friday line-up, including the Moving Wallpaper/Echo Beach post-modern double act, and a greater focus on contemporary drama in the 9pm slot across the week.

Should we be impressed? Simon Thompson,'s chief marketing officer, thinks we probably should. He especially welcomes a return to 10pm for the news. He adds: "I enjoyed watching Sir Trevor McDonald the other night, since he seemed suitably satisfied at the excellent coverage of the plane crash at Heathrow. ITV managed to present unique footage of the event and a unique eye witness report. Sir Trevor's self-congratulatory smile at the end of the feature said it all. He clearly felt ITV was back. Internal engagement is always a recipe for success, so if the teams responsible for schedule changes involving drama and soap feel like Sir Trevor and other viewers feel like I do, I am prepared to forecast happier times ahead for ITV."

Neil Jones, the managing director of Carat, backs that view. He says: "There's innovation with Moving Wallpaper and the drama is strong - there are new things, but there are also things in there delivering a proven audience. Moving the soaps out of Sunday may seem a ratings risk initially, but it will allow ITV the opportunity to attract better quality audiences in those slots. I know News at Ten hasn't been an instant success in audience terms, but I think it will perform well for the network in the future - it could succeed in inheriting the drama audience (in the 9pm-10pm slot). ITV had a strong 2007, so there is every cause for optimism."

Daren Rubins, the managing director of PHD, agrees it's looking positive. "With a mixture of new, borrowed and old formats such as Echo Beach, Dancing on Ice and News at Ten, ITV is committed to attracting diverse audiences in big numbers, which can only be a good thing for commercial TV."

Chris Locke, Starcom's trading director, isn't quite so sure about the News at Ten initiative - and ITV's decision to keep it an ad-free zone at least over the short term. But that's a minor quibble, he says: "Trial and Retribution is good, so is Honesty - it's a bit old-fashioned, but so what. The 9pm slot is now unashamedly about sit-back-and-enjoy TV. Kingdom is just right for Sundays. The only worry is that ITV seems to have gone off at a sprint this year - and it's true what they say about this being a marathon. It will be interesting to see what happens over the course of the year with regard to Channel 4, which seems to be fighting back."

YES - Simon Thompson, chief marketing officer,

"Sir Trevor's smile the other night showed he felt ITV was back. Internal engagement is a recipe for success, so if the teams responsible for the changes feel like he does, I forecast success."

YES - Neil Jones, managing director, Carat

"I'd say Grade has delivered. When they came in to present the schedule, there was a real sense of renewed confidence and vigour. There's a balance between new ideas and programmes you can rely on to attract big audiences."

YES - Daren Rubins, managing director, PHD

"ITV is right to focus on the things that remain within its control by demonstrating a long-term commitment to quality product, innovative formats, clever scheduling and bold marketing."

YES - Chris Locke, trading director, Starcom

"I'd give this schedule eight out of ten. There was a feeling that ITV's audience performance had to bottom out and it had enough strong properties to pull people back in when it did. Even so, I was surprised at how well it performed across 2007. It's doing well."

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