Media Forum: Will schedules buoy ITV/C4?

Can the summer line-up re-energise the broadcasters, Alasdair Reid asks.

How very disappointing. Last week's announcement by ITV 1 of its new programme line-up, while mildly diverting, failed to distract some of us from the (quite literally) hottest issue in commercial TV: who is to replace Amanda Holden in Wild at Heart? At the end of the last series, her character died while attempting to rescue a pet cheetah from a bush fire - a commonplace misfortune that can befall anyone, but one that has left some of us with strangely indefinable sense of loss.

Such questions may now have to wait until the autumn - and in the meantime, we'll have to make do with the ITV1 spring/summer schedule, which this year is focusing on greatness. There's Marco Pierre White's Great British Feast, Griff Rhys Jones' Great Cities of the World, Martin Clunes looking at what makes dogs so great and Britain's Got Talent, which is unlikely to flirt with greatness unless we count the judging panel, which this year includes Piers Morgan, Simon Cowell and ... a lightly scorched Amanda Holden.

Meanwhile, over on Channel 4, the highlight of the summer schedule will be a series in which the celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal is drafted in to help save an ailing television network. Hang on. That's not true at all. Blumenthal's mission is actually to save a branch of Little Chef - a restaurant chain that can in no way be compared to the incomparable Channel 4. Oh yes, and there's also something terribly voyeuristic called Big Brother.

What's the verdict? Is this just the sort of liquid nitrogen Channel 4 needs? And is the ITV/Holden offering up to scratch? After all, the mainstream commercial TV business needs something of a fillip, what with all the talk there's been about revenue being on the slide.

John Davidson, the TV trading director at Starcom MediaVest, says he's mildly optimistic, especially about the ITV schedule - though he thinks it odd that ITV refrained from the usual razzmatazz when announcing a new season.

He adds: "Arguably, we could have seen even more risks. But it's a robust schedule with a good mix of drama, entertainment, sport and factual. And the factual programming is interesting because it seems to have been moved away from the sensationalist end of things. Martin Clunes (and his dogs), for instance, could pull in an upmarket audience more like a BBC audience - and advertisers will like that."

Andy Bolden, the media director of consumer healthcare Europe at GlaxoSmithKline, is similarly surprised - and not a little disappointed - that the schedule launches have been so low key. So he doesn't really feel informed enough to talk about individual programme initiatives. The worry, he suggests, is that this is symptomatic of a deeper marketing malaise. He says: "The best you can say is that marketing from the mainstream commercial broadcasters comes in fits and spurts. There's no consistency. A big brand such as ITV, which is with us 24/7, should always have something to say in marketing terms."

And Daren Rubins, the managing director of PHD UK, argues that you have to have some sympathy for poor ITV, which has tried desperately to experiment with Echo Beach and Moving Wallpaper. He explains: "The reality for the network is that its audience knows what it likes and likes what it knows. That's why there's the same old reliance on its trusted soaps and a return for Britain's Got Talent."

But do the schedules really make a difference in revenue terms - especially when there's less cash in the market? Nick Theakstone, Group M's UK chief operating officer, says he has to refrain from commenting on specifics (ITV is a client). But he concludes: "Of course, programming can have a hugely positive effect. And while it might be true that even an amazing schedule can't change how much money there is in the market, it can go a very long way towards helping the medium. Everyone wants TV to be stronger, richer, deeper as a medium - and that has to start with programming. Broadcasters such as Channel 4 and ITV know that."

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MAYBE - JOHN DAVIDSON, TV trading director, Starcom MediaVest

"The ITV schedule is eclectic in places and it might possibly attract new audiences. But it is such a competitive marketplace these days. It will be interesting to see how it actually performs."

MAYBE - ANDY BOLDEN, media director, GlaxoSmithKline

"How does ITV intend getting behind the schedule? How is ITV planning to get customers back to what is still such a wonderful brand? It's hard to recall the last good marketing campaign undertaken by ITV."

YES - DAREN RUBINS, managing director, PHD UK

"Is the ITV summer schedule exciting? No. Will it deliver? Of course it will. Similarly, Channel 4 has descended into a world of home and food. Why? Because it's popular and it works."

MAYBE - NICK THEAKSTONE, UK chief operating officer, Group M

"It's true that the revenue indicators for May, for example, don't look great. There's a realisation at commercial broadcasters such as Channel 4 and ITV that programming has to be central to everything they do - and you shouldn't underestimate the positive effect it can have."