Agencies are fuming over the latest ratings crisis at ITV, Alasdair Reid
Marcus Plantin, ITV’s network programming chief, must be learning to
associate summer with a horrible sinking feeling. The annual ITV ratings
crisis is almost an institution these days - despite repeated warnings
that agencies and advertisers are no longer prepared to put up with it.
Advertisers gave Plantin such a roasting last summer that they assumed
he’d try a little harder this year. But ratings figures released during
May, showed that ITV’s share of viewing had slumped to its lowest level
in four years. The response has been thoroughly predictable - ITV is
upping its budget to buy more movies and is promising once again to take
a fresh look at its dismal peak Saturday evening offerings.
Last year, Plantin said that the days of quick fixes were over. The
network was going to take a more considered view, bringing on home-grown
talent and investing in more long-term winners. But, at pounds 587
million, ITV’s programme budget for this year far exceeds any of its
rivals, yet appears to offer less value for money.
What has happened to Plantin’s good intentions and what does he need to
try now? Is it time that the network took a more radical look at the
programming expertise at its disposal?
One of the main reasons for poor performance - largely at peak and late
peak times across the whole week - is that ITV drama is under-achieving,
with the main beneficiary being BBC2.
‘ITV has to realise that some of the old favourite dramas have limited
shelf lives and should be axed when their popularity tails off. Running
another series with increased promotion doesn’t work,’ David Connolly,
the joint media director at Leo Burnett, says.
He adds: ‘The network has assets in its stars that should be developed
further. Where are the new vehicles for Robbie Coltrane, Kevin Whatley
and Nick Berry? The network has also run good one-off pilot dramas it
hasn’t followed up on. It desperately needs some variety too - almost
all its big guns are in-your-face, gung-ho, fire, murder, violence and
horror. It needs to think along the lines of the Darling Buds of May a
bit more often.’
Connolly doesn’t think that movies are the answer. After all, ITV is
already losing viewers to BSkyB. But he believes ITV can learn a few
tricks from Sky. ‘Sky steals a lot of stuff from other channels - look
what it has taken from ITV in terms of sport. Why can’t ITV start doing
the same to BBC2? It has to learn to play a little dirtier,’ he says.
ITV has frittered away an embarrassment of riches in recent years, not
just high profile own goals like the loss of one of its more inspired
creations, Men Behaving Badly, to the BBC, but in terms of personnel
David Cuff, the broadcast director of Initiative Media, argues that this
is just part of the natural cycle of things within the TV industry.
‘Perhaps when you have a good run, as ITV had on the drama side until
fairly recently, you start to become a little too complacent,’ he says.
‘But it’s also hard to know when the old favourites will tire. BBC2 has
also been scheduling very aggressively.’
Others are less sympathetic. As one senior media specialist puts it:
‘Plantin is lucky that this is happening when other factors mean that it
has been a relatively cheap month in airtime terms.
Individual parts of ITV are not happy with the Network Centre at present
- with good reason.
They are all so precious down there. This is not a precious business.
‘The Network Centre is so removed from the reality of the game that it
may as well relocate to the Outer Hebrides. It may well come to that.’