TV: Special Report - Battle of the sales houses

How are TV sales houses reacting to the fragmentation of the medium? Maria Esposito investigates.

The ever-expanding electronic programming guide may be good for TV viewers, but for established terrestrial and digital channels growing choice can only translate into shrinking business. In the constantly shifting sands of multichannel digital broadcasting, the older commercial players such as ITV and Channel 4 face the possibility of increasing competition, a diminishing audience share and the added threat of new technologies such as personal video recorders.

With analogue switch-off looming, the race is on for broadcasters to futureproof their offerings, for viewers and advertisers alike. As a commercially funded public-service broadcaster, Channel 4 has been the most proactive in protecting its livelihood, pushing into new media and extending its brand further into the free-to-air digital arena. Its new factual channel More4 will be following E4 on to Freeview this autumn. The focus on free-to-air is paying off and Channel 4 is seeing an increase in its audience share.

Channel 4's sales director, Andy Barnes, attributes this success to targeted niche programming. "The one reason Channel 4 is so strong is that it appeals to everybody some of the time," he says. "The value of the Channel 4 viewer is greater because you are getting a pure audience."

In the past year, Channel 4 has delivered water-cooler shows such as Jamie's School Dinners, Shameless, Sex Traffic and Desperate Housewives.

"It has quality programming and scripts for its dramas," Alex Debenham-Burton, the associate director for TV at MediaCom UK, says. "It is a market leader and you can always tell it's Channel 4 from the packaging."

This is a lesson ITV should be heeding. Only 20 months on from a merger, the channel is struggling to find a formula for both its daytime and evening schedules. Shows such as Celebrity Love Island, Fat Families and Nigella are failing to do the business for a channel used to double-digit audiences in the analogue-only era.

Andrew Coulter, the TV director at Initiative, believes this has not sufficiently dented ITV's profile. "Despite audience migration, it still has the ability to deliver big-rating, coverage-building shows," he says.

But he is in the minority. "You can't be all things to all people, which is where ITV has suffered," Debenham-Burton says.

It's a commonly held view among agencies and advertisers. "There are a lot of young targeted companies that can do without ITV," Chris Boothby, the worldwide buying director at Vizeum, says. "It has a real problem but it is not alone."

In this tough environment, TV sales houses acknowledge that they need to re-evaluate their positions to keep advertisers coming back. They have even set up a joint advertisers' consultancy, Thinkbox, to promote the "three Is": inform, inspire and involve clients.

"TV sales houses are more client-focused than they used to be," Debenham-Burton says. "They go directly to clients because the sales houses feel media agencies might be blocking any creative ideas they have."

The managing director of ITV Sales, Graham Duff, is the first to admit this change and even extends the hand of friendship to media agencies themselves. "We've acknowledged the need for a different body language and an understanding of how the agencies and creative work," he says.

"It's a more consultative approach and we want to be seen as potential partners rather than feared as adversaries."

No-one seems to understand this approach better than IDS. While the broadcast sales director, Martin Plant, sees it as a "challenger brand", agencies see IDS as a reliable player in an evolving market. "IDS always punches above its weight and tries to be more than just spots," Boothby says. "Once you strike a deal with it, it delivers."

Coulter agrees. "IDS is very strong on interpersonal skills and has good project teams," he says. "It seems to be the most rounded in the largest number of areas away from spots."

Given IDS's early strides in interactive advertising, it's perhaps not surprising that Plant sees PVRs as just another addition to his arsenal rather than a death-knell for the 30-second spot. "It has increased opportunities for developing new creative executions and formats such as advertorials or advertiser-funded programming and interactivity," he says.

When it comes to PVRs, Sky clearly holds the trump card. Sky has managed to mark its territory with Sky+ but has not, crucially, turned its back on traditional advertising. "It understands that PVR's will effect the 30-second spot but Sky has an element of control," Boothby says.

Sky is also to be commended for its attempts to bring more players into the market. "Its interactive department is proactive in trying to find solutions for brands and in trying to encourage and help advertisers to use the medium," Coulter says. Together, these factors may give Sky the edge over its competitors in a volatile sector. Boothby adds: "Sky is here for the long term."


Channels it sells for Sky channels including Sky One, Sky Movies and Sky Sports, Discovery, Emap, National Geographic, Hallmark, Biography Channel, History Channel

Managing director: Nick Milligan Strength of brand: 3/5 Strength of schedule: 2/5 Strength of sales ideas: 4/5 Strength of non-spot offering: 3/5 Best sales person (according to media buyers): Nick Milligan

Performance in past 12 months

In 2004, Rupert Murdoch's Sky Media sales house shifted an eye-watering 3.4 million minutes of advertising. The company is hoping to increase this figure off the back of a new research initiative called Sky View.

Currently being tested for launch later this year, Sky View will provide detailed viewing data and measure every Sky service based on a panel of viewers in 20,000 homes across the UK.

In a nutshell "Sky owns the gateway to the future." - Chris Boothby, Vizeum


Channels it sells for GMTV

Sales director: Clive Crouch Strength of brand: 3/5 Strength of schedule: 3/5 Strength of sales ideas: 3/5 Strength of non-spot offering: 3/5 Best sales person (according to media buyers): Simon Poole

Performance in past 12 months

GMTV consistently outperforms the BBC for breakfast viewing and claims to be the most effective daypart broadcaster at driving sales for FMCG brands. However, GMTV falls down with children, who prefer public-service broadcasters such as CBeebies on the satellite/Freeview platforms.

In a nutshell "Good for 'me time' but where does it take the brand beyond that?" - Alex Debenham-Burton, MediaCom


Channels it sells for Channel 4, E4, FilmFour and soon-to-be-launched channel More4

Sales director: Andy Barnes Strength of brand: 5/5 Strength of schedule: 5/5 Strength of sales ideas: 4/5 Strength of non-spot offering: 4/5 Strength of sales team: 4/5 Best sales person (according to media buyers): Matt Shreeve

Performance in past 12 months

Channel 4 has enjoyed a bumper year with shows such as Big Brother and Desperate Housewives wooing big audiences.

Profits were up by 34 per cent and the channel has poured more funds into its much-vaunted programming on the main channel. E4 has also been given a £20 million budget boost by its parent. The company is now putting a significant amount of money behind the new channel More4 and user-generated broadband services such as Fourdocs and a dedicated music website.

In a nutshell "Channel 4 is the brand every advertiser wants." - Chris Boothby, Vizeum


Channels it sells for ITV1, ITV2, ITV3, Men & Motors, ITV News Channel, Irish terrestrial channel TV3

Managing director: Graham Duff Strength of brand: 2/5 Strength of schedule: 3/5 Strength of sales ideas: 3/5 Strength of non-spot offering: 3/5 Best sales person (according to media buyers): Gary Digby

Performance in past 12 months

ITV has had a rollercoaster ride over the past year. ITV1, its flagship channel, was hit by an audience loss of 9 per cent in the first half of 2005 and regular viewers are even defecting from safe bets such as The Bill and Coronation Street. July saw the channel's biggest monthly audience drop in free-to-air digital homes. With this kind of form, ITV needs its autumn schedule - chock-full of big-budget dramas - to deliver if it is going to stave off potential lost revenue in excess of £100 million.

In a nutshell "ITV is a lot more unsure about where it is going than the other channels." - Alex Debenham-Burton, MediaCom.


Channels it sells for MTV, MTV2, MTV Base, MTV Dance, MTV Hits, VH1, VH2, VH1 Classic, TMF, Nickelodeon, Nick Toons TV, Nick Junior, Paramount Comedy, Paramount Comedy 2, E! Entertainment

Managing director: Nick Bampton Strength of brand: 3/5 Strength of schedule: 3/5 Strength of sales ideas: 4/5 Strength of non-spot offering: 3/5 Strength of sales team: 3/5 Best sales person (according to media buyers): Nick Bampton

Performance in past 12 months

VBS continues on an upward curve, having nearly trebled its revenue in the past four years. The sales house has pumped out more than 300 pieces of bespoke creative copy over the past 12 months. In June, VBS launched a new division - advertising and marketing partnerships - to focus on categories and not just briefs. The sales team is overseen by Nick Bampton, who took over from Paul Curtis as the managing director in November.

In a nutshell "Its strength is the 16 to 34 age group." - Alex Debenham-Burton, MediaCom.


Channels it sells for Cartoon Network, Turner Classic Movies, Boomerang, Toonami, CNN International Europe

Chief executive: Nan Richards Strength of brand: 3/5 Strength of schedule: 2/5 Strength of sales ideas: 2/5 Strength of non-spot offering: 3/5 Best sales person (according to media buyers): Andrew Mallandine

Performance past 12 months

With more than 21 children's channels in the market, Turner has its work cut out to survive. However, the animation channel Cartoon Network scored a coup last year with Adidas' first campaign targeted at children. The 'impossible is nothing' campaign saw David Beckham star alongside the classic cartoon character Scooby-Doo. The ads were made in-house and show the Time Warner company's strength in generating creative copy itself.

In a nutshell "Turner is probably the best of the lot at marketing itself - albeit in a narrow market." - Andrew Coulter, Initiative


Channels it sells for five

Sales director: Mark White Strength of brand: 3/5 Strength of schedule: 3/5 Strength of sales ideas: 3/5 Strength of non-spot offering: 3/5 Strength of sales team: 3/5 Best sales person (according to media buyers): Kelly Williams

Performance in past 12 months

Despite the collapse of merger discussions with Channel 4, five continues to grow its audience with shows such as House starring Hugh Laurie, and scored an 11.8 per cent share of adult impacts in June this year. Now that the German broadcast group RTL has taken full control of five, the channel can develop a multichannel strategy.

In a nutshell "Good at dovetailing programming into what's going on in the world around it." - Alex Debenham-Burton, MediaCom.


Channels it sells for Flextech channels Living TV, Bravo, Trouble, Challenge, FTN, Extreme, UKTV Gold, UKTV F2, UKTV Drama, UKTV Style, UKTV Food, UKTV Bright Ideas, UKTV People, UKTV History, UKTV Documentary and UKTV Style Gardens

Sales director: James Wildman Strength of brand: 4/5 Strength of schedule: 3/5 Strength of sales ideas: 5/5 Strength of non-spot offering: 5/5 Strength of sales team: 4/5 Best sales person (according to media buyers): Mark Connolly

Performance in past 12 months

With Campaign's Broadcast Sales Team of the Year award for being "the market's surprise package" in the negotiating season, IDS continues to be respected by advertisers and agencies alike.

In a nutshell "Innovative and easy to deal with." - Chris Boothby, Vizeum.