OPINION: ITV Digital sale will tarnish ITV's brand

Last summer, ITV rebranded its feeble digital offering, ONdigital, as ITV Digital so that the lacklustre brand would benefit from a bit of old ITV sparkle.

This week, ITV Digital was put up for sale and the mire over ITV Digital's Football League deal is reaching its nadir. Now it's time to count the cost of the rebranding on ITV itself. Far from sharing ITV's sparkle, the fate of ITV Digital has tarnished the ITV brand. The fact that ITV Digital and the ITV Network Centre share the same chief - Stuart Prebble - and that Granada and Carlton chiefs have been steering talks with the League have only served to highlight that ITV Digital and ITV1 are siamese siblings sharing a single heart and mind.

Carlton and Granada's decision to cut their losses and concentrate on the free-to-air ITV brand seems, from an advertiser's point of view, to make knee-jerk sense. But, given their synonymity, does it really serve advertisers for ITV to pull Digital's plug and so throw the brand credentials of its terrestrial channel into question?

The Digital saga has seriously dented the ITV brand name and that's not good news for advertisers seeking mass audiences. Already other sports bodies will be questioning whether they dare sit round a table with ITV; confused sports fans will be wondering what fate lies in store for their cash-strapped teams (no matter that many were already facing financial crisis before ITV Digital; ITV will get the blame); confused ITV Digital subscribers will be wondering if they'll have blank screens in a few weeks' time; and a host of local businesses whose existence is reliant on the local footballing community will be wondering whether they'll have a crust to earn if the local team goes belly-up. All will be harbouring a grievance against the ITV brand name.

Will they stop watching Coronation Street? Of course not. But will ITV be less likely to secure exclusive programming deals? Possibly. And will the saga sour ITV's reputation with TV regulators and politicians? Yes.

All of which could hamper the ability of ITV's terrestrial service to compete in the commercial arena. And by severing its hold on the digital future, ITV has also once again resigned itself to managing decline.

But there is some hope. Recent NOP figures suggest that the ITV Digital furore has left more than a third of people harbouring second thoughts about switching to digital TV. And for an ITV1 desperately trying to fend off competition from satellite channels, that's really quite an interesting statistic.


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