MEDIA FORUM: Why ITV needs a new light entertainment format - ITV's brave experiment with the Premiership highlights may be over, but is the triumphant return of Cilla the answer, Alasdair Reid asks

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

treasure.



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

10.30pm.



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

it?



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

insists.



"The people with most interest are just getting back from their

game.



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

audience?



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

again."



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."



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