Media Forum: Is TV recovery sustainable?

Revenues could be up 5 per cent over the first quarter.

Sweet sherries all round. The good times may be returning to the television market. According to unofficial figures circulating last week, a surge of money into the market during March will see revenues up 5 per cent year on year over the first quarter. It's surely time to talk confidently in terms of green shoots and lights at the ends of tunnels. The airtime market recovery has begun ... or has it?

Fans of that most lugubrious of AA Milne's creations, Eeyore, will feel duty-bound to point out that the March figure is possibly distorted by the fact that we have a relatively early Easter this year - so money will have been pulled forward out of April.

Furthermore, we're continuing to see some very shaky indicators across the economy as a whole; the General Election may return a government minded to push through a Draconian emergency budget; and, in any case, aren't those irresponsibly feckless Greeks, aided and abetted by nervous Germans, threatening to pull us all to the very edge of the precipice once more?

On the other hand, the word on the TV buying street is that the figures for April (as far as anyone can tell in this reduced-visibility market) look pretty healthy too. There's even talk that the month could be up by more than 15 points - and some wild optimists have been predicting a number greater than 20. And let's not forget that this is a World Cup year - so we're almost guaranteed a beer and barbeque-led summer bonanza.

The future must seem doubly bright for Five. In the autumn, as the TV trading season got under way, there were those who suspected that Five was in a terribly weak position - and that this might be exploited remorselessly by media buyers. But Five (up nine points year on year over the first quarter, according to unofficial figures) is growing ahead of the market as a whole.

Kelly Williams, Five's sales director, is always optimistic, but he suspects we're not out of the woods yet - and he argues it's hard for anyone to make credible predictions beyond April. He adds: "Of course these figures are very positive news. We're off to a decent start to the year. The World Cup will also give people grounds for optimism as regards the summer. But there's the General Election and a possible emergency budget by an incoming government to come. Agencies don't have the visibility that they might have had - because we're still in a market where budgets can be cut at any time."

Also hedging his bets is Nick Theakstone, the chief executive at Group M. He explains: "I'd be very careful about assuming this can be sustained. I think we might find that there are some advertisers active in the first quarter that might not be spending much later in the year. The Government is one, obviously. There will be a period of purdah there, following the election. And then you read all the stuff there's been in the newspapers about national debt - and that's frightening. When people start comparing the state we're in to the Greek economy, then you have to be at least slightly worried. As for the World Cup, a lot will depend on how England do - but the tournament doesn't always see a huge amount of money arriving on the market."

Matt Platts, a managing partner at Vizeum, agrees that it's certainly looking more positive than for a long time. He's fairly optimistic as regards the World Cup effect - and that, in turn, could be a springboard for a decent late summer and autumn. But he cautions: "It's difficult to use March and April as a basis for any calculation because these were the worst months compared year on year to 2008 of 2009, down around 20 per cent."

Pedro Avery, the managing director of trading and engagement at Arena BLM, argues that the key issue is the fate of the wider economy - and, in particular, whether we'll see cuts in public spending this year or whether the next administration will bow to pressure (not least from a number of influential economists) and lay off until 2011.

But, he adds, the underlying trends look good for TV. He says: "It's interesting to look at the brand count - (year on year) there are considerably more brands on TV. So, in general, it's true to say there has been a renewed focus on using the medium. It's also true to say that if the price goes up, people tend to spend more. But TV is still very cheap. In April 2006, ITV's adult cost-per-thousand was £7.95. In April 2010, it will be £7.18. In other words, it's still 10 per cent cheaper - and with the continued growth in commercial audiences, inflation is being kept in check."

MAYBE - Kelly Williams, sales director, Five

"We'd like to think that the situation in March and April is a sign of things to come. But it's a terribly hard question. We'd tend to be cautious given what's happening in the wider economy as a whole."

MAYBE - Nick Theakstone, chief executive, Group M

"Yes, there are lots of advertisers who have plans in place until the end of the year - but they usually include a plan A and a plan B. There's not enough visibility to know exactly in which direction we're all headed."

MAYBE - Matt Platts, managing partner, Vizeum

"You can argue that we were bound to see something of a bounce-back this year (because 2009 was so dire). And if things hold up, then we may well be into a situation where a virtuous cycle becomes self-fulfilling."

MAYBE - Pedro Avery, managing director, trading & engagement, Arena BLM

"What you can say for sure is that we've already seen a paradigm change. Many people came into 2010 expecting the television market to be down by 3 to 5 per cent across the year. Now there are people talking about it being up by 3 to 5 per cent."

- Got a view? E-mail us at