MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON: ITV’S SUMMER RATINGS SLUMP; Can ITV win back viewers by axing its tired old favourites?

Agencies are fuming over the latest ratings crisis at ITV, Alasdair Reid reports

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.’