Media Forum: Has ITV misled the market?

What are the repercussions of ITV's Event TV gaffe?

Last week, an eagle-eyed commentator spotted that, buried in an appendix at the end of the recent Competition Commission report on Contract Rights Renewal, there's a bizarre (not to say, surreal) little nugget about ITV and a concept known as Event TV.

It shows, you could argue, an astonishing level of duplicity on the network's part. And it's threatening to brew up into an angry little row. It stems, of course, from ITV's desperation to convince the Competition Commission that the time is right to do away with CRR - the remedy put in place in 2003 to stop the network abusing its airtime market dominance.

And, in order to do that, ITV had to convince everyone concerned that ITV airtime is, basically, nothing special. The only trouble is that one of the central strands in ITV's sales policy down the years is that ITV peak time airtime is very special indeed. So special, in fact, that it's unique. The network has produced oodles of research to this effect and the most recent iteration of this draws attention to the power of Event TV - programming that not only draws big audiences but commands the sort of buzz of expectation that guarantees utterly compelling audience attention.

Explain that away, ITV. Easy, its submission says. The research, you see, is complete tosh, mere marketing fluff for the eyes of media agencies and their clients. And the implication, of course, is that advertisers are so stupid they'll believe anything. There is, ITV maintains, no such thing as Event TV.

The broadcaster clearly didn't expect this submission to be published - but that's no excuse. In fact, it sort of makes it worse. Whichever way you look at this, it's clumsy.

But does any of this matter to advertisers? Yes, Bob Wootton, the director of media and advertising at ISBA, insists. He says: "ITV has, for many years, traded on the basis that large shared audiences have a particular power - and clearly the Competition Commission didn't fall for such a contradictory line.

"So ITV has been playing with fire. Of course, in situations like this, you present what you think is your best case. But there comes a point when, if you take that too far, any victory you can possibly achieve would be Pyrrhic. It is now seen to be undermining its own sales arguments. So, yes, this is a serious issue."

Perhaps, Richard Oliver, the managing partner, investment, at Universal McCann, agrees. But he also believes that all's fair in love and war. Advertisers are well placed to make their own judgments about the merits of airtime sales propositions. He explains: "It's more than obvious that some programmes are more valuable than others. Since ITV came together as a single entity, people have expected the network to act more like the medium's lead broadcaster and come up with the sorts of research initiatives that would really sell the medium as a whole. By and large, the network has done that and, by and large, with good reason, advertisers have bought into Event TV."

Andy Benningfield, the trading director of Maxus, points out that ITV even has things called Event Specials - such as England football games and The X Factor final - that it seeks to charge an extra 10 per cent for (on top of any existing peak time premium). "Of course Event TV exists - and, yes, it works. There's tangible evidence of that. Advertisers using it can report massive uplifts in sales and in web traffic," he points out.

Meanwhile, Matt Platts, a managing partner at Vizeum, agrees that, for ITV, this could become an unwelcome distraction. He says: "ITV has built its business on Event TV - in fact, it's pretty much the network's unique selling proposition. Down the years, ITV has done plenty of research into this. It's not exactly a new thing. So this is a complete red herring. We all understand that there are situations where you have to try to create the arguments that work for you - but as regards this submission, I don't think anybody really believes that ITV believes it."

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YES - Bob Wootton, director of media and advertising, ISBA

"It's never a good idea to undermine your own sales efforts. Of course, it's true that, when you're fighting any campaign, you marshal your arguments - but the market will take this very seriously indeed."

NO - Richard Oliver, managing partner, investment, Universal McCann

"Event TV has underpinned ITV's sales policy for many years and it has been a core part of its trading policy. You can see why ITV said what it did to the Commission - but no TV buyer would view this with anything other than wry amusement."

MAYBE - Andy Benningfield, trading director, Maxus

"ITV has been selling Event TV for years and advertisers have been buying into it. It works - and there's tangible evidence around to show it works. So the network can't have it both ways. It's all a bit strange."

MAYBE - Matt Platts, managing partner, Vizeum

"I'm sure we'll take this into our negotiations with ITV and we're always trying to find ways to reduce the premium (advertisers pay). Ultimately, the market decides - and the truth is, ITV is unique."


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