Media Forum: Should ITV sales be trusted with GMTV?

How strongly should the market insist on the continuing independence of GMTV's airtime sales, Alasdair Reid asks. GMTV is a rather quirky anachronism. Its programming style is a reassuring, anxiety-free pastel zone, while its very existence as a franchise specialising in one single daypart on one single channel is a last surviving fragment of the way the market operated way before consolidation kicked in.

Its profile in the industry is low. Agencies, which tend not to be run by either housewives or children (though you sometimes wonder), don't employ many people who watch it; and if you don't have a breakfast cereal or a toy company as a client then you're probably barely aware of its existence. Its share of mind is probably even smaller than its 2 per cent share of UK display advertising revenue.

Which is why it was somewhat surprising to find the IPA getting so exercised about a proposed change in its shareholding structure. It has three shareholders - ITV on 50 per cent and Disney and Scottish Media Group with 25 per cent apiece - but back in May, ITV reached an agreement with SMG to buy out its stake, giving the network full control.

The deal, though, is subject to regulatory approval and the Office of Fair Trading duly invited comment from relevant parties. Last week, in uncompromising fashion, the IPA chipped in. Its submission argued that the deal be referred to the Competition Commission if ITV attempts to merge GMTV advertising sales with the main ITV sales operation.

It argues that for many advertisers targeting children and housewives with children, GMTV is a vital outlet and its competitive situation against ITV is an important restraining factor on prices. The danger, the IPA argues, is that, once integrated within ITV sales, GMTV airtime might be sold on a conditional basis.

Is this a genuine worry? Surely the major buying points are big enough to look after themselves here. Nick Theakstone, the managing director of Group M Trading, says: "For people targeting housewives and children, what GMTV does is very desirable and it is responsible for an important part of the commercial audience in that sector. We wouldn't want that lost within ITV and we wouldn't want our conversations lost within a bigger ITV conversation. We would be very concerned if an element of competition were lost and we would argue that whatever happens in terms of ownership, there must be constraints on conditional selling."

Advertisers also seem to be concerned. Clive Austin, the media buying and group communications manager at Kraft Foods, is also the vice-chairman of ISBA's TV Action Group. He says: "Consolidation of GMTV's airtime sales may not greatly increase ITV's commercial position but for those who use GMTV, it would reduce competition in the market and have an effect on prices."

Neither GMTV nor ITV accepted our invitation to participate in this article - but how do other broadcasters in this sector see the situation? Paul Curtis, the managing director of Viacom Brand Solutions, which numbers Nickelodeon and Nick Junior among its channels, argues that to a certain extent agencies are trying it on. "Don't forget there has been concentration on the buying side, which is now controlled by five companies. Is anyone calling for constraints to be placed on them?" he ponders.

But he does admit that the loss of GMTV's sales independence would have some worrying aspects. He comments: "Our main concern would be that GMTV has been a good spokesperson for the children's advertising market and has helped to develop it. ITV hasn't done anything like that."

Paul van Barthold, the managing director of BLM Media, can't believe that ITV sales would afford GMTV the attention that it gets from its own dedicated sales team. He adds: "It would (also) remove yet more competition from the commercial TV marketplace - in particular, for advertisers who target children and housewives with children. GMTV has a distinctive offering for these clients and is able to compete successfully for their budgets."

Some disagree, arguing that GMTV has lost its touch in targeting its specialised audience. Mick Perry, the chairman of Magna Global UK, would take issue with that assessment. He concludes: "GMTV is a very successful little operation in terms of the audience share it delivers and it maintains good relationships with its customers. There are many advertisers who like to use GMTV but every single one of them absolutely needs to use ITV. If you are in the position of needing something from ITV, it will always use that, without it necessarily being conditional selling."

- "GMTV is not an integral part of the mix for everyone but every advertiser that does use it will regard this as a fundamentally important issue. It would be wrong for people who don't use GMTV to believe that this is a side issue. Its independence is important." - Nick Theakstone managing director, Group M Trading

- "The main worry from our point of view would be that some advertisers who are under pressure on all sorts of social issues surrounding advertising to children would give up entirely on television if a monopolistic ITV was added to their list of problems." - Paul Curtis managing director, Viacom Brand Solutions

- "While I believe that it is in the interests of advertisers that ITV is strong, its strength should be in delivering large quality audiences in peaktime. It still has some work to do on that score - as shown by the latest viewing figures." - Paul van Barthold managing director, BLM Media

- "You can argue that children and housewives audiences are available on satellite but not everybody has satellite and reaching them via ITV can be expensive. I don't think we should be in a hurry to give ITV anything more to tack on to what it already has." - Mick Perry chairman, Magna Global UK.

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