OPINION: MILLS ON ... THE BBC AND ADVERTISING

Symmetry connoisseurs would have found much to enjoy in UK broadcasting last week. First, Richard Eyre decides to quit ITV for the quieter pastures of Pearson TV. Then the BBC chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, announces that the BBC will no longer chase ratings at the expense of its rival, ITV, but pursue quality instead.

Symmetry connoisseurs would have found much to enjoy in UK

broadcasting last week. First, Richard Eyre decides to quit ITV for the

quieter pastures of Pearson TV. Then the BBC chairman, Sir Christopher

Bland, announces that the BBC will no longer chase ratings at the

expense of its rival, ITV, but pursue quality instead.



ITV, not to mention its advertisers, must feel Christmas has come

early.



Although you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, it’s impossible

not to wonder if Eyre would have stayed had he known that.



But let’s read between the lines at what Bland, who is nothing if not

subtle, actually said. ’We do not regard holding on to share as the only

or most important measure of success,’ he said - a statement which, on

the face of it, implies a retreat from the ratings war. However, he

preceded this with the comment that ’over the next ten years (BBC1’s

audience share) will be at best stable (at around the 30 per cent mark)

and probably decline’.



To my mind, there’s no ’probably’ about it; BBC1’s share cannot help but

decline. It is a fact of life in the multi-channel environment that

unless the BBC stays in the ratings game and does so aggressively, its

share must, inevitably, decline. So for Bland to imply that BBC1’s share

might not decline is to allude to the possibility that it will continue

to chase ratings. Is he speaking thus with a forked tongue - saying one

thing to convince the chattering classes that he is determined to

preserve and update the BBC’s charter values (not to mention heading off

the advertising on the BBC lobby), while in the same breath conceding

that the corporation will continue to chase ratings, albeit more subtly,

than it has in the past few years?



This is a vital question for advertisers. Whatever ITV thinks, the issue

of advertising on the BBC is merely dormant. Indeed, the ISBA hawks have

an econometric model which, they believe, shows commercial funding of

the BBC would not necessarily cannibalise commercial TV. At the

appropriate moment (ie the next BBC1 ratings ’disaster’) they would be

more than happy to demonstrate it in Whitehall to anybody who would

listen.



Take Bland’s words at face value. Would advertisers be better off with a

BBC1 that left the ratings war to commercial TV, in particular ITV?



The answer is yes.



But would it also mean they would give up calls for advertising on the

BBC? I doubt it. In fact what they’d love would be two mass-market

channels that complemented each other. We have not seen the last of this

issue.



The usual suspects have been fingered as far as Eyre’s old ITV job is

concerned. But one name has been conspicuous by its absence. The two

qualities said to be necessary for this job are the ability to hold the

ring between warring shareholders and to talk the right language to

advertisers.



My candidate? John Perriss. There’s no question he can do the latter,

and the history of Zenith shows he knows to handle fractious

shareholders.



Plus he’s got a degree in cunning, which is dead handy in a job like

that.