Media Forum: Is television in good health?

Is TV still a vital medium for advertisers, as Tess Alps asserts, Alasdair Reid asks.

Tess Alps had some hard acts to follow at the Roundhouse. For instance, back in the mists of time, the launch party for International Times, where the entertainment was provided by a Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. Or the Dialectics of Liberation conference that brought together a whole panoply of maverick genius, including R D Laing and Allen Ginsberg. Or the notorious gig by the Ramones in 1976 that kick-started punk rock. And Peter Brook's groundbreaking production of The Tempest. Not to mention Oh Calcutta! Or Michael Clark's comeback ...

But Alps, who opened the Thinkbox Experience in her role as the chief executive of Thinkbox, and thus the TV medium's marketer-in-chief, clearly had no intention of being distracted from her purpose by any of these ghosts. Her aim was to reassure the audience - and a wider advertising industry beyond - that the commercial TV medium is in sparkling good health.

She had a more than passable supporting cast, including Michael Grade (pink tie, red socks, executive chairman of ITV) and Andy Duncan (no tie, stripy shirt, chief executive of Channel 4) - entertaining acts in their own right, but even more compelling when teamed up on the same stage.

Not that the tone was unremittingly upbeat. At one stage, for instance, Duncan admitted that: "TV has done a lousy job of selling as a total medium and (has) lost sight of the main thing, which is that TV is great value and fantastic at advertising brands." But even that statement was essentially the product of an optimistic "could and should do better" mindset - and can be boiled down to "TV is great value".

But is it? And is the medium really in good health? After all, it has been through some rough times lately. ITV has been in the doldrums, Channel 4 is still worried about making ends meet in the future, while the spat between Sky and Virgin Media serves to remind everyone about the undiluted joy the medium takes from a bout of infighting.

Ian Armstrong, the manager of customer communications at Honda, confesses that he found the day very interesting and refreshing. He says: "For me, it reinforced the feeling that the medium remains strong. Perhaps more than anything, we were reminded of the powerful emotional connection that TV can make with its audience."

Yes, Charlie Varley, the planning director at MediaVest Manchester, agrees, but he still has worries over whether or not the medium is making the right arguments to the right people. He explains: "The conference was executed brilliantly and was very important for the medium. Tess is the most brilliant person to have doing that job. But there weren't many young people there. Or people from a digital background. The key thing is the action that comes from all of this - the Thinkbox Experience needs to be built upon. Meanwhile, it's also true that the television industry still has huge structural issues. It hasn't helped that the brand leader (ITV) has been all over the place. There's a continuing feeling that there is still too much internecine fighting. TV remains in control of its own destiny, but it can't afford to squander opportunities."

Neil Jones, the managing director of Carat, tends to agree with much of that. There's light at the end of the tunnel, he suggests, but there's still much work to be done. He adds: "On the one hand, we know that, although digital technologies will not replace TV, they will certainly redefine it. On the other, we can be sure sound and vision, in whatever form, will continue to be the lead advertising medium. So it was encouraging to see everyone agreeing that the way forward is for the medium to address these challenges collectively rather than just stabbing each other in the back."

But Richard Oliver, the managing partner, investment, at Universal McCann, is prepared to be more generous. He concludes: "The previous Thinkbox Experience was OK, but it didn't set the world alight, so I was surprised this time. I thought the research presentations were interesting and the break-out sessions were very good. The medium is on the right track as far as revenue is concerned. There's a greater confidence about issues such as video-on-demand and internet protocol television. These sorts of things - like the whole personal video recorder thing when it came on the horizon a couple of years ago - are always scary at first. Then, as they become a reality and start attracting viewers, there's a realisation there's still a place for advertising."

YES - Ian Armstrong, manager, customer communications, Honda

"There's a sense the industry is being jostled by new technologies.The challenge is to understand them. But what came through was the sense it's still possible for us to produce very good work on TV."

MAYBE - Charlie Varley, planning director, MediaVest Manchester

"There weren't many young client brand managers at the Thinkbox Experience. There weren't many young agency people there. So who was going to take all of this stuff and amplify it (in the wider industry)?"

MAYBE - Neil Jones, managing director, Carat

"The message that came across is that TV has to get better at marketing itself. It has been fashionable to talk down the medium. There's a still a job to be done, building it up and reminding people of the power of the medium."

YES - Richard Oliver, managing partner, investment, Universal McCann

"I think it is in rude health. I always have done. Maybe it's because I'm a natural optimist, but I have always felt that some of the issues - the future of the 30-second spot, ITV's woes - have been overplayed."

- Got a view? E-mail us at campaign@haymarket.com.