Last week, when Barb released the total share of viewing figures
for 1996, it also published a table of viewing trends over the past five
years. For ITV, the table makes sobering reading. In 1991, ITV had 41.7
per cent of all viewing - last year, its share had fallen to 35.1 per
In the same period, BBC 1 shed only a couple of percentage points to hit
the 32.4 per cent share mark, while the combined BBC 1 and BBC 2 figure
dipped by less than a percentage point over the five-year period to
record a 1996 share of 44.1 per cent.
The big growth sector is satellite, which has almost trebled its 1991
share to post a figure of 10.1 per cent last year. Channel 4 hasn’t done
badly either, edging up to just under 11 per cent.
But it is ITV’s performance against the BBC - its natural enemy and
greatest potential source of audience growth - that is so surprising.
Doubly so, given increased programme budget commitments by the Network
Centre. Has this been good money after bad?
Things aren’t about to get any easier for ITV. Channel 5, which launches
in a couple of months’ time, will seek to achieve a total viewing share
of slightly under 10 per cent. From what we already know of its
schedules, a fair chunk of that share will come from ITV.
ITV management isn’t about to start losing sleep over this. Clive Jones,
the managing director of Carlton Television, comments: ’It is perhaps
inevitable in the multi-channel environment that we will continue to
suffer a degree of audience loss. But we still hold the lead in terms of
peak audience share and there’s no reason that shouldn’t remain the
case. We still account for 40 per cent of viewing in peaktime - and that
is an important factor for advertisers.
’Let’s put this into context, too. Not so long ago, John Birt predicted
that the BBC’s combined audience share would fall below 30 per cent by
the end of the decade. It doesn’t look like happening. Fortunes can
By its very nature, this business is cyclical.’
David Cuff, the broadcast director of Initiative Media, agrees. ’If
you’re spotting trends, 1991 is not a good base to start on for ITV,’ he
points out. ’Following an advertiser revolt in the late 80s, it had got
its act together and the BBC was doing terribly. The BBC had nowhere to
go but up - and it’s actually done it by raiding the ITV heartland. It’s
hardly fulfilling the BBC remit to increase choice - you could argue
that the BBC should be producing more educational programmes and far
less Noel Edmonds and soap operas.’
It won’t though - obviously it needs big ratings to justify the licence
fee. Indeed, Cuff forecasts that ITV will have a 29.8 per cent share of
viewing in 2001: ’It is in the business of managing gradual decline.
But less than 30 per cent is nothing to be embarrassed about.’
Perhaps. In the multi-channel environment, audience size translates
directly into revenue, so a continued decline in ITV viewing would be
extremely painful indeed. It could even lurch into a downward spiral,
with poor revenue performance meaning that there’s increasingly less
cash around to make audience-grabbing programmes.
Nasty for ITV - but would advertisers mind? After all, tough competition
makes for a buyer’s market.
Edward Lloyd Barnes, a director of IDK Media, points out that
advertisers value the mass peaktime audiences that only ITV can deliver.
’A continued decline in ITV’s audience share looks likely, but it’s not
at all inevitable,’ he maintains. ’The licence fee isn’t going to keep
pace with inflation and the BBC will be less able to produce the types
of programmes that command big audiences. Why shouldn’t ITV take
advantage? Competition is nice but we need a strong ITV in the