MEDIA FORUM: Is there any real optimism for recovery in 2003?

Time to ask the tea leaves what 2003 will have in store for media. Alternatively, Alasdair Reid asks owners and buyers for their predictions.

It's easy to predict what's in store for us all in 2003. There's obviously going to be a war in the Middle East. Unless of course there isn't, Saddam climbs down, and it turns out that the whole thing has been no more than a double dare game of Iraqi chicken. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon could well end up being this year's trendy holiday destination.

And as for the economic outlook, well that's easy too. From a purely UK perspective we're going to continue along the inexorable trajectory of this double D-cupped, enamel bath-shaped recession much beloved by the chief executives of advertising conglomerates and about which so much has been written. And yet, so subtle is this curve that it might actually seem like a gradual yet sustained economic recovery.

Not that we'll feel the benefits. We'll all be suffering the wintry effects of the property market crash that began at the tail end of last year - unless you believe what some lenders are telling us, which is that December was, contrary to popular belief, actually yet another record month.

On the advertising and media industry side, things are equally straightforward.

ITV will consolidate into one company unless the competition authorities block the merger; and the network will be sold by one (or possibly two, possibly one-and-a-half) sales house(s), forcing other broadcasters either to set up rival sales houses or to do nothing at all.

Increased programming spend at the terrestrial networks will lead to a creative renaissance and a ratings recovery which will be tempered only by a dawning realisation that cable and satellite channels are nicking larger numbers of their viewers. Publishers will continue to manage decline, consoled by the fact that paper prices get cheaper by the day. Every other medium will, at some stage in the year, claim that it is the fastest-growing medium in the UK display advertising market.

So there it is in a nutshell. Actually, there's only one medium that will win all ends up. Wars are good for newspaper circulations, aren't they? Neil Hurman, Trinity Mirror's advertisement director, national titles, has no time for that sort of view. "Iraq in itself is not necessarily the problem," he responds. "If there is conflict in the Middle East, the question is what sort of a response there will be from all sorts of extremist groups. And what effect will that have on the shopping centres the length and breadth of the land? The retail sector made up for deficiencies in other sectors and kept newspapers' heads above water last year. We need strength in that sector to retain momentum. The big question for newspapers as a whole is whether we'll see any recovery in the finance or recruitment sectors. The problem in the finance sector last year was that everyone went into the year expecting there'd be a recovery in global equity markets. It hasn't happened."

Hurman is relatively optimistic though and can foresee actual growth of between 3 and 5 per cent - and the market continues to be buoyed by high demand for colour.

One medium is still going to find things relatively tough, isn't it?

Television could yet again suffer many self-inflicted wounds and distractions.

But Nick Milligan, the acting chief executive of Five, doesn't see it that way. "Commentators and analysts have tended to focus on ITV's problems and not on TV's success," he argues. "Television grew its share of display advertising, grew its commercial audience and grew its revenue by 4 per cent, mainly at the expense of newspapers."

Commercial viewing, he forecasts, will continue to grow in 2003, particularly in the first few months. There should be little or no cost inflation in real terms as revenue will grow but should not outstrip the supply of audiences. "In 2002, ITV and Channel 4 lost viewers to Five and multi-channel TV. Agencies might have to work harder to reach the audience but fragmentation brings huge opportunities for advertisers and opens up TV to more categories. This grows the cake for all of us. The winners in 2003 will be Five and Sky. ITV should lose less audience than in 2002 and its revenue will fall to around 51 per cent of the market," he says.

Fighting talk. Other media will perhaps be sceptical of this argument and some may foresee further opportunities to persuade advertisers to move even greater shares of their budgets out of TV. Radio, for instance, must take quiet satisfaction from any signs of instability in the TV market.

"Not necessarily," Kathryn Jacob, the commercial director of Virgin Radio, responds. She points out that radio pitches itself as an essential part of a multimedia schedule and doesn't target any one rival medium to pitch itself against. In general, Jacob thinks we'll see the market mood lurching from optimism to pessimism in the early months of 2003 - but a more considered and balanced view will prevail.

But what is going to be the big theme in radio itself? "Digital," Jacob says. "Sales were good pre-Christmas and it seems to be gripping the nation's imagination. The internet is also making radio more available and the more people tuning in the better it is. It's particularly good for strong brands because when people have a choice they tend to seek out the stronger brands."

And how does the world look from the media specialist perspective? Kelly Clark, the chief executive of MindShare UK, says: "Our view is that 2003 will be another tough slog. Our estimate is for all expenditure growth of 2.4 per cent in cash terms, so if you factor in inflation that's a flat market." MindShare predicts that motor, healthcare and government spending will outperform the marketplace and that the financial sector will continue to be soft.

In terms of media owner winners and losers, MindShare predicts that TV revenues will be up by 2.9 per cent, press will be up 1.9 per cent, radio and outdoor will rise 2.5 per cent and cinema revenues will grow by 3.8 per cent. But the best performer of them all, Clark reckons, is a medium that people didn't even recognise as a medium until relatively recently.

"The most significant growth, ahead of the market as a whole, will be in the retail channel. More and more clients are looking at retail as a channel in itself."

Clark explains that this involves a more holistic use of in-store promotions, point of purchase, trolley and ambient advertising, in-store category management and advertising in the environment around stores. A whole new channel? Hardly the best news in the world if you're a conventional media owner. If true, this could be the most intriguing theme of all this year. However, it does depend on the continued strength of retail. But don't underestimate the potential here.

"If it's helpful in driving the desired effect, we will certainly be in that space," Clark declares.