Media Perspective: Is there any hope of a bright future for commercial TV?

Writing about commercial television in 2009 has been a wholly depressing experience. It has brought to mind Richard Burton's description of his need to drink alcohol excessively "to burn up the flatness, the stale, empty, dull, deadness" he felt when not on stage.

Flat, stale, empty, dull, dead. Words that encapsulate the state of UK commercial television and, even more specifically, ITV's recent muddled search for a chief executive. A search that left it discussing terms with one candidate, Tony Ball, whose demands gave every indication that his heart wasn't really in it.

ITV's failure to find a leader capable enough and enthusiastic enough to take it forward seems emblematic of the state TV finds itself in. Where are the surprises, the new ideas, the people that are going to save television from itself?

We have witnessed a series of depressing, failed and aborted initiatives from broadcasters, including Channel 4's ill-advised foray into digital radio and ITV's well-intentioned dream of a "content-led recovery", which floundered on the rocks of recession. Worse, the actual experience of watching TV is becoming less rewarding for advertisers and viewers as declines in ad and other revenue force broadcasters to pull the plug on premium content. In this context, it doesn't greatly surprise me that disciplined, technology-led companies such as Google have stolen TV's thunder and even some of its glamour.

TV, a successful Sky aside, is almost three-quarters through its annus horribilis. Falling ad revenues are keeping pace with morale at C4, Five and ITV, which all look vulnerable. Which might explain why they're trying so hard to feed off the fatty deposits of a bloated BBC but have yet to come up with a viable solution between them.

Amazingly, though, there are slim signs of hope that the worst might be over. ITV, in particular, has some strong commercial talent to steer it through the bad times and C4's fortunes must surely improve when it selects a new leader to replace Andy Duncan. And media agencies are suggesting that revenues in November and December look stronger than in the rest of the year (not surprising, perhaps, in the run-in to Christmas but slightly encouraging nonetheless).

More fundamentally, there are signs that, with the likes of Project Canvas, now due to launch before the end of 2010, TV is going to have some sort of stake in the future of media - with open platform services funded by targeted advertising operating on one level and premium, subscription-led services on another.

If broadcasters are not in both games, to a greater or lesser extent, then they will be screwed. And ITV and C4, both currently lacking the leadership to bring this about, look like soft targets for other media groups with content dreams.


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