We'd like to say it was ever thus. We'd like to suggest that ITV executives have a long and noble history of pleading their case for regulatory leeway in order that they might produce a greater diversity of quality programming. Unfortunately, we can't. Last week's performance by ITV's new dynamic duo, the chairman, Archie Norman, and the chief executive, Adam Crozier, not to put too fine a point upon it, was a breathtaking first.
They had come before a House of Lords communications committee hearing on advertising regulation determined to have yet another pop at convincing everyone that Contract Rights Renewal, the advertising market remedy introduced in 2003 to allow Carlton Communications and Granada to merge, thus forming ITV plc, should now be removed.
In the past couple of years or so, ITV has advanced several reasons for scrapping CRR, most of which boil down to the notion that it is no longer relevant in the current business climate. This time, it tried a rather more left-field approach, arguing not that ITV deserves the right to make more money; but that CRR was restricting ITV's ability to deliver a better (and more varied) schedule of programming to the great British public.
ITV believes that CRR has been responsible for depriving the network of a cumulative total of around £262 million - money that would, Crozier insisted, have made its way into programming budgets.
"Advertisers would like us to target more unique audiences, rather than the same audiences again and again and again ... but the system works against that," Crozier said.
He added that he'd like to see more regional programming, especially regional news and "things like the arts, like more drama, like more factual programming".
The great irony, of course, is that Lord Bragg, the former ITV arts controller and one-time presenter of The South Bank Show (formerly the jewel in its arts crown, now scrapped), is a member of the committee. Had he probably not been rendered speechless, he may have contrived more of an opportunity to confront Crozier and Norman.
Because the truth is that ITV has a long and not entirely noble history, stretching back before CRR, of coming before the regulators to plead to be let off even the most basic of its public-service broadcasting commitments. And it has a long and entirely understandable history of being obsessed with chasing mainstream mass audiences.
1. The South Bank Show, the flagship of ITV's arts programming (it was also the longest-running arts show on British television), was killed off in 2009 - the last show going out in December of that year. Subsequently, Lord Bragg has accused ITV of "stupid consultancy scheduling", arguing that it has abused the greater regulatory freedom it has been granted in recent years. The network, he suggested, is now being run by "suits" wielding "slide rules".
2. ITV had lobbied throughout the 90s for permission to kill off News At Ten - so that it could run films uninterrupted in peaktime starting at 9pm. It was finally given permission to do this in 1999, in a compromise agreement with the regulators. But it was forced to restore a 10pm bulletin when it failed to honour the scheduling arrangements (designed to maintain some semblance of peaktime news) it had agreed. It sought and was granted new permission to shift the bulletin between 2004 and 2008 but the situation was again mismanaged.
3. ITV lobbying on the regional news front paid off in September 2008 with the publication of Ofcom's public-service broadcasting review. It agreed to ITV plans to cut in half its number of regional news operations, representing annual savings of £40 million.
4. Motivated in part by Ofcom's decision to ban junk-food advertising around children's programming, ITV has been bumping kids shows off ITV1 and on to its dedicated CITV digital channel. Campaigners are concerned that there is a continued determination by ITV to marginalise children's television.
5. At the Edinburgh Television Festival back in 2008, ITV's director of television, Peter Fincham, lambasted Ofcom for taking ITV to task for its obsession with mainstream ratings. "Unless we fight hard to assert the importance of mass audience, we may find that broadcasting as we know it simply goes niche and splits into a thousand pieces," he maintained.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...
- It can do very much better than this. In recent times (even, surprisingly, under the otherwise urbane Michael Grade), ITV has been notorious for its charmless corporate persona.
- There are those who argue that it should be shameless in trying every lobbying wheeze that it can think of. And, after all, Crozier is nothing if not a trier.
- But the seeming disingenuousness of this recent escapade will win it few friends. That's a terrible shame. With more guile, ITV could make real progress on the CRR front.
- As one senior advertiser asked last week: "Am I missing something? Or is this outrageous?"
- Advertisers have always made their position clear: they want a strong ITV but they don't want one that will "clobber" them in the advertising market - as ITV has tended to do now and then when given half a chance. Those with longer memories also know that ITV has a history of failing to live up to its programming and schedule marketing promises.
- They may well remind the Lords committee of this, if given the opportunity. Happily for ITV, they may also suggest that it's time not to abolish CRR but perhaps to modify it, with ITV being given undertakings as regards increased programming budgets that are practical and enforceable.