The story back in the summer was that the old lags at London
Weekend Television were spitting every time they heard anyone say the
"Des" word. Or forming the sign of the cross with their forefingers - a
gesture reckoned since time immemorial to be effective in abjuring
Dracula and all the dark deeds enacted in his name.
And who can blame them? Before Des Lynam arrived with his Saturday
peaktime package of Premier League football highlights, The Premiership,
LWT had it cushy. For decades, the Saturday evening ITV schedule had
been a protected outlet for cheese and LWT has always been ITV's cheese
factory. And the Queen of Cheese is, of course, Cilla. That's "our
Cilla" to anyone over 50. Cilla, the host of Blind Date and a national
Well, the good news for all those at LWT is that the spitting and finger
signs have worked because Cilla's back. (Not that Cilla and football are
entirely unconnected - in fact, put your money on Liverpool winning the
Premiership title in May, because apparently, since the 1963/64 season,
the fortunes of Cilla and Liverpool Football Club have been inexorably
linked.) Blind Date steps back in at 7pm. The football goes back to
But while LWT and its light entertainment culture may rejoice, is it
actually good news for advertisers? In the short-term, Saturday ratings
will recover because Des, after all, has been pulling in audiences of
less than five million. On the other hand, whatever you think about
Cilla's particular brand of cheese, it certainly isn't the future. Is
Jim Marshall, the chief executive of MediaVest, claims he always thought
it was madness putting the football at 7pm. "It's far too early," he
"The people with most interest are just getting back from their
The thinking was that football is the national sport, therefore it will
make popular family entertainment. It just doesn't work that way.
Football is a minority interest. And there's so much live televised
football around that it is in danger of becoming overexposed."
Marshall adds: "Match of the Day as a habit was a strong proposition but
as soon as the schedulers moved it from where the BBC had it (at or
after 10.30pm), then it became apparent it was a habit you could lose.
And it didn't help that the style of coverage attracted criticism."
But what would he replace it with? Is light entertainment really the
only answer? "Why not?" Marshall responds. "ITV needs an entertaining
and not-too-demanding schedule." And he's only half-joking when he adds
that he's surprised it hasn't wheeled in Who Wants to be a Millionaire?.
It is, after all, the network's panacea for all ills.
ITV's problem is that the BBC also has a good track record on Saturday
evenings - though even Auntie had the guts to drop its Cilla equivalent,
Noel Edmonds, a few years back. The theory is that if you get a big
audience at 7pm you stand every chance of keeping it throughout the
evening - on the other hand, the BBC's determination to carry the
National Lottery draw leaves it spectacularly vulnerable to ambush.
ITV sources point out that, while audience share has been dented on
Saturday evenings since the beginning of The Premiership era, ITV
remains ahead on Saturdays over the past year. ITV still beats the BBC
seven Saturdays out of ten. And, they add, it will soon be back to
winning more than eight out of ten.
But what about the audience demographics? Hasn't ITV been punting the
notion that the football will pull in a hard-to-reach young male
By 10.30pm, you've got less chance of reaching them because they're all
down the pub. Many sources say that this isn't an issue - young adults
will generally be a significant component of an early evening light
entertainment programme audience. For instance, they used to watch Blind
Date before going out.
John Blakemore, the UK advertising director of Glaxo SmithKline, says he
will miss the early highlights show.
By the time he gets back from Loftus Road (home of Queen's Park Rangers)
on a Saturday, he's ready for some real football. "There's nothing
better than sitting down with a plate of spaghetti in front of the telly
and watching the Premiership action," he reveals. "It would have been
braver for ITV to have stuck with it for another month but I'm sure it
is taking into account who's actually available to view across the
evening. Once you've reached clubbing time the only audience left is
families with children and boring old people like me. We don't want to
be threatened or challenged. What's wrong with good old Cilla? Saturday
evening is an evening for total relaxation."
Ian Anders, the broadcast director of CIA UK, agrees: "It's a nice idea
trying to attract 16- to 34-year-old men on a Saturday night but the
problem is that you lose lots of the other parts of the audience. If you
put Ibiza Uncovered on, it might please advertisers such as Coke and
Wrigley's but the mass will turn off."
That said, Anders isn't sure that the tried and tested ITV formula is an
option either. He adds: "I actually think that in any other economic
climate, the football would stay in early evening and it would
eventually have paid off. Given time, ITV could have constructed a
schedule that didn't leave it too exposed - they'd have put the right
programmes before and after it. But in this economic climate the
schedulers had no choice.
Obviously, Saturday is a light entertainment stronghold but if ITV
becomes too complacent, it will lose more viewers to multi-channel - and
it's difficult to get them back when viewers do change their habits. I'd
like to see the network in a position where it can start taking risks
Jon Horrocks, the broadcast director of Walker Media, would second that
- but he reckons that the highlights repeat, now shifted to Sunday
morning at 9.30am, could be an immediate success story. He states: "It
should do well, although it will be interesting to see what children's
advertisers will do. My view on Saturday is that the football would have
picked up in that early slot. Darker evenings, the weather closing in,
the title race really getting underway - it would all have helped. Maybe
not enough though - it probably had to go. And, yes, Blind Date is
better than the football in that slot but it's a tired product and I
don't think it will do as well there as the schedulers think it will.
Pop Idol would have been perfect actually, but that's just about
finished now. Apart from that, I don't really know what they should put
in there. If I did I'd be making lots of money as a scheduler."