Perspective: ITV can’t vindicate drop in viewing as long-term decline

I don’t know who invented the phrase ’management of long-term decline’, but it’s now one of those sayings that has acquired a common currency.

I don’t know who invented the phrase ’management of long-term

decline’, but it’s now one of those sayings that has acquired a common


I hate it. It makes me uncomfortable. It’s an insidious phrase, implying

both complacency and inertia. It’s a cop out, a rationale for wringing

your hands and trying nothing new. British car industry going down the

drain in the 80s? ’Don’t worry, mate,’ the car chiefs say, ’we’re in the

business of managing long-term decline.’ Then in come the Japanese.

Economy in a mess? ’Stick with us,’ the politicians say, ’we’ve been

managing long-term decline for years now. Actually, we’re quite

experienced at it, don’t you know.’

And these days, of course, you hear it more and more in media circles,

especially TV. ’Look chum,’ the ITV bods say, ’it’s inevitable. But I

tell you what. We’re awfully good at managing long-term decline.’

Of course, you may think I’m being unfair, but I’ll bet you a pound to a

penny that, faced with last week’s Institute of Practitioners in

Advertising TV viewing trends, more than one ITV executive retreated

behind that excuse.

Now they may be right to do so. Let’s look at the issue in the round

first. Total TV viewing in 1996 came in at an average 3.59 hours per


OK, it has stabilised after three years of decline, but it’s still

significantly down on 1992’s 3.81 hours. This is not good, but perhaps

there are some simple explanations. Clearly, the nature of leisure time

has changed since 1992. We’re surfing the Net, we’re jogging and cycling

more, we’re shopping in the evenings and on Sundays, too. We’re

travelling further and it’s taking longer. Those of us in work are

certainly putting in more hours.

All this is reasonable explanation. But say we accept it, how does one

then explain the drop in ITV’s share of average daily viewing from 39

per cent in 1993 to 35 per cent now? We could, of course, buy the

argument about ’long-term decline’ but, curiously, nobody at the BBC

seems to be thinking that way. Over the same time, BBC1’s share has

changed very little, while those of Channel 4 and BBC2 have fluctuated

more or less within set parameters.

So where’s it all going? Answer: to satellite and cable. Its share has

more than doubled to 10.7 per cent of all TV or 19 per cent of

commercial TV over the same period. And guess what? For the most part,

it’s all coming from ITV which is in ... well, you can guess the


For advertisers, is this a problem? If commercial TV’s overall share was

rising, then probably not. But the trouble is it’s falling - from 57 per

cent in 1993 to 55.9 last year - and all at a time when the number of

commercial channels on offer (ie offering consumers the extra benefit of

choice) has been increasing exponentially. But there’s the paradox.

Perhaps more choice just makes us more selective.

Funny thing, choice, isn’t it?


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