If I were running ITV now...

As the UK’s biggest commercial broadcaster celebrates its 50th anniversary amid falling ratings, Ian Quinn asks leading media figures for their views on what the future holds for ITV

Former Granada managing director David Plowright once said that "the ability to sign a cheque is the least reliable guide to a company's fitness". As the broadcaster runs through a series of programmes to celebrate its 50th anniversary, his successors at ITV might be hoping he was wrong.

The biggest irony about the UK's biggest commercial broadcaster as it approaches this landmark is that it is arguably in the best shape it has ever been as a company, while simultaneously facing issues over its programming which threaten to blight its recent achievements.

Free from the days when the multiple ITV franchises caused more punch-ups than the average Mike Tyson weigh-in, and able to benefit from an iron grip on the advertising market after the controversia lmerger of Carlton and Granada, ITV is doing many things right.

Its digital strategy has risen from the ashes of the ITV Digital debacle and the broadcaster turns 50 with an emerging family of digital channels, putting it in a strong position as analogue switch off looms.

ITV has also shaken off tens of millions in overheads, selling off a string of non-core assets and winning concessions left, right and centre from Ofcom in areas such as its plan to slash public service broadcasting.

Yet while it may be free of the internal politics which in the past sometimes tore ITV apart, there is a spectre which haunts the birthday celebrations.

Since 22 September, 1955, when audiences watched its first commercial broadcast, ITV has developed a reputation for finding shows which capture the attention of the masses. From Coronation Street to I'm A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here, its flagship channel ITV1 became the "must have" for audiences and advertisers alike.

Not having peak-time ITV shows on the schedule became unthinkable, both for viewers and agencies.

Yet while its streamlined structure is a world away from the warring factions of the past, its reputation for the magic programming formula has been on the wane. In the peak-time ratings, its flagship is being rapidly sunk by Channel 4 and the BBC.

Where are the sort of programmes which made ITV the channel of the masses? In the not too distant past, ITV was able to count on a series of shows which would bring in 10 million, plus peak time audiences, without breaking sweat. Now Celebrity Love Island struggled to bring in four million despite plenty of sweating on the beach from some desperate celebrities.

Sources within the broadcaster argue that the decline of ITV1 is only to be expected, considering the huge amount of extra competition posed by multichannel's huge growth. But should its main channel try to reinvent itself as a brand for younger audiences or make a last stand for the older generation of TV viewers?

Such arguments could well be taken out of the hands of the present day ITV, which may not last another five years, let alone 50. The heavily mooted US buyout may take longer than some have anticipated, but many think it is only a matter of time before greedy eyes are being cast across the Atlantic and ITV, at least in its present guise, becomes a part of history for good.

For now though, rather than our friends across the pond, we've asked some of the UK media's biggest names just what they would do it they were running ITV now...

Chris Ingram, founder, The Ingram Partnership

"If I was Charles Allen looking into the future, I would be anticipating the disintermediation of the media agency and looking forward to closer contact with clients on a direct basis.

"As market leader, I would expect to take a more proactive and visible stance on various issues, such as self-regulation of advertising and increasing the focus on public services and other issues.

"I would expect a better articulation and demonstration of what ITV stands for, what we do and why we're important for this country.

Consistent delivery

"I'd be pleased that we've consistently delivered big audiences. I'd be annoyed that it wasn't appreciated that ITV had successfully merged 15 companies into one, with minimum disruption to advertisers.

"I'd be philosophical about the fact that the first venture into digital had been so bad (On Digital), but really pleased about the way it's performing now (ITV2/3).

"I would be hugely frustrated that TV airtime was still being traded in the same old way and would have a deadline by which I would aim to change it, and I'd know that ITV had to lead this.

"I'd be aware by now that ITV and the rest of the TV market had been slow to react to market forces from the advertiser's point of view, but I'd be confident that we'd build up momentum and make up for lost time.

"Finally, I'd be looking forward to taking Chris Ingram to the World Cup finals in Germany, where we'd beat Brazil 3-0 in the final."

Christine Walker, founder, Walker Media

"ITV was mortally wounded by ITV Digital and was directionless for two years afterwards.

It was badly off target and I sense that it didn't have a strategy.

"Some claim it's because it was concentrating on the merger, but I don't believe that. It's just whingeing. I just don't think it knew what it was doing.

"To mismanage to that degree and to leave debts left, right and centre, like it did with ITV Digital, is disgraceful, but that's what you're allowed to do in this country.

"Having said that, I think it is back on track.

There's no question that ITV2 has been a great success. It's giving Sky One a run for its money, which is a remarkable achievement.

"It's a good start and it should be congratulated after three to four years of disastrous performance.

ITV family

"It has approached the idea of an ITV family of channels with vigour, although if I was in charge, there's no way I'd just keep launching spoiler channels.

"It shouldn't launch a lads' channel, for example. They've already got Men and Motors and it's bollocks.

"The real issue for ITV1 is that is inexorably in decline. It's becoming the Sunday Express or The Daily Telegraph of TV. Its audience is becoming older and older. It's dying.

"If I was Charles Allen, I'd be saying that quite clearly celebrity, or at least on TV, is on the wane. It's a jaded and faded formula. I'd be strongly incentivising my people to find what is the next phenomenon.

"If they haven't been doing that, they deserve what's coming to them, because something will break eventually.

"They have misjudged so many things.

Shows they have regarded as bankers have flopped dismally. I think they got the shock of their lives when Doctor Who started thrashing them on Saturday nights.

"Channel 4 and the whole of the satellite arena is hammering them when it comes to the younger audience.

"Can you teach old dogs new tricks? I would like ITV1 to get back to being the mass entertainment brand.

"In the past, ITV's people were passionate about TV – the Lew Grades, the Michael Grades, the Greg Dykes. But I don't get a sense that the people at ITV are passionate about TV. I get the impression they are just dying to be bought and I think it's going to be a dollar deal. It's just that the dollar isn't strong at the moment.

"ITV is such a strong brand, so whoever does buy it would be mad to change it. But mad things happen in business."

David Mansfield, chief executive, Gcap Media

"First of all, I'd like to point out that I don't think I'm qualified to tell Charles Allen how to run his company.

"What I would say is that ITV, until recently, has been held back by legislation. It had been restricted from the merger and restricted from acquiring other assets.

"I think it's had a tough situation. Like everyone, it watched the BBC become more and more aggressive, certainly it ran rampant under Greg Dyke's management, with his agenda probably having had revenge written at the top of it.

"I think ITV has come in for a lot of unfair criticism. The merger seemed to be handled remarkably smoothly. There aren't too many handbooks on how to pull off something like that. We are using it as a model at GCap.

Good communication

"I'm aware of much better communication at ITV, whether that's from Mick [Desmond], Graham [Duff ] or Justin [Sampson] I don't know, but that's important for ITV and all media owners because if there's a void of silence, then people will fill it.

"It's got to recognise that the market is changing hugely. The industrial revolution that's taking place today is broadband and everyone has to be aware of it.

"There is a big threat to the interruption advertising model. People like Google are crashing into the ad space. In the US, subscription radio is taking off. The business models are changing and the consumer is in control.

"As for whether ITV will be taken over by a US company, I don't think too many things are inevitable, other than death.

"Companies like Viacom, Disney and Clear Channel have a lot of issues at home to deal with."

Douglas McArthur, chief executive, Radio Advertising Bureau

"I think it is a very ambitious person who forecasts 50 years ahead, so I don't know what ITV could do to remain as successful.

"I doubt if any media brand in the future will be able to be as successful as ITV today.

ITV is a consequence of restricted spectrum– and that is a thing of the past.

"Let's forget about forecasting 50 years – let's just go back 12 years to 1993.

"Twelve years ago, no businesses had web addresses, no one but academics had e-mail addresses and mobile phones were a personal extra, rather than a universal business tool.

"So who would confidently forecast the next 12?

"I suppose the only truism is that we always over-estimate the short-term impact of technology and under-estimate the long-term effect.

"Happy Birthday ITV."

Antony Young, CEO, ZenithOptimedia UK

"ITV certainly feels like one company. Given the enormity of the task of pulling together two highly competitive and different sales organisations, they have quickly moved to a single, unified sales house under the leadership of Graham Duff.

"They have shown a willingness to engage in broader discussions such as ROI and a move beyond trading and pure 30-second spot selling. ITV's Fame ratings is a good leadership initiative. They have been open in their dialogue with agencies, discussing their programming and scheduling deficiencies and the solutions they were targeting.

"They found a winning formula for ITV2 and ITV3, which has helped them offset some of the fall-off in ratings and revenue from ITV1. They were fortunate the first 12 months of the merger took place in highly favourable market conditions. Last year saw a blip in TV advertising – around 7% – which helped to produce a satisfactory result to the City, but 2005 will be a tougher year and it is likely they will see revenues fall year on year.

"What has become apparent is that the Contracts Rights Renewal mechanism (CRR)n – a snappy solution to prevent potential abuse of its dominant market size – has been a heavy price to pay for the merger. It has become an incredible burden to the running of ITV programming and is driving short-term behaviour, counter productive to any long-term strategic thinking of the business.

No-risk situation

"CRR, which links ITV's revenue more directly to audiences, has created a situation where their business need must be to chase large audiences every night. This has naturally led to a situation where they are discouraged from taking risks and have to rely on proven formulaic television as a crutch.

"Expect to see more celebrity programmes, police dramas and reality television. ITV can ill-afford to experiment with new formats or sacred soap slots on the schedule. They have been forced to be more reactive to non-performing programmes, as seen in the cutting of Celebrity Wrestling. Given a few misses recently, this is creating intense pressure.

"ITV has no option other than to maintain ITV1 as best as it can. However, this will be an exercise in managing decline. It effectively remains the cash cow in the portfolio and will need to run as efficiently as possible. The investment and focus has to go behind its digital channels in trying to increase its share of the multichannel audiences, which is the clear growth sector of the market.

"The key battleground in the next five years is Freeview. Much has been reported on ITV2's success in extending programme coverage on ITV1 properties like the X Factor .

However, cross-promoting properties on ITV2 and ITV3 is cannabilising its existing audiences and destroying value for them. This is an issue that needs to be squared off with expectations in the City. At current prices and assuming a premium needed to transact an acquisition, it isn't exactly a bargain.

"The CRR mechanism and declining ratings of ITV1 are also a deterrent. We wouldn't expect a buyer in the short to mid-term. "

Jim Marshall, chairman, Starcom Group

"ITV has got as lot of things right, but there's one fundamental thing that it hasn't got right.

"It has a commercial strategy that's in pretty good shape.

"They've taken a lot of costs out of the business and the company is certainly more efficient as a single ITV.

"Their digital strategy has worked well so far and it's not easy to get that right. ITV Digital was an absolute calamity.

"The huge problem is with the programming on ITV1.

"I know it's difficult when you get three to four million viewers watching Celebrity Love Island and it's seen as an unmitigated failure, then Channel 4 gets two to two and a half million people watching Big Brother and it's seen to be a huge success.

"But ITV is in the business of getting programmes with mass appeal. They have shown they can do it with shows like Pop Idol, but I just think that there isn't enough talent on the programming side within ITV.

Missing passion "If you go back to when ITV was at its best, back in the '80s with dramas like Cracker and Prime Suspect and back in the '70s with The Sweeney and Minder, these were top-quality dramas.

"There doesn't seem to be the talent and the passion for programming within ITV.

"When ITV was at its best, it was essentially run by programming people. For some time now, ITV has been run by what are essentially commercial people.

"It's all to do with focus and priorities.

"Channel 4 is run by programming people and it always has been. People like Michael Jackson, Michael Grade and Mark Thompson.

"The BBC made a great renaissance under Greg Dyke. Where is ITV's latterday Plowright? That's what's missing.

"It's having a massive commercial impact.

ITV could be down by eight to 10% this year which, under CRR, could cost the company over £150m. If they are not careful, they will start to lose their USP.

"As for its longer term, I think that a sale of ITV will happen as the media scene consolidates.

"Compared to the Viacoms of this world, it's a small company and an obvious target.

"For now though, its destiny is in its own hands and my suspicion is that if it doesn't improve its programming on ITV1, someone will make a judgement that they can come in and get it on the cheap.

"ITV should put its hand in its pocket and bring in some talent to get the people who can commission the programmes that are needed to make it amust-have."

 

Where are they now?

ITV is perhaps better known in the media industry for the people who used to work there rather than those who do now, considering the number of high-profile characters launched at the broadcaster.

Some argue it was because ITV was made up of so may different competing companies that it produced so many giants of the industry.

It created headlines with the fall-outs between its various networks, which at one time numbered 15 – the big five being LWT, Thames, Granada, Central and Yorkshire.

Perhaps the most unholy spat involved Granada's hostile takeover of LWT in 1994, which saw Granada chairman Gerry (now Sir Gerry) Robinson, chairman of Allied Domecq, and a team including a certain Charles Allen, at war with LWT chief executive Greg Dyke and chairman Christopher Bland – two figures who later made a slight ripple at the BBC.

Granada was once infamously dismissed as "upstart caterers" by John Cleese. Chief executive Steve Morrison is now dishing up treats at production company ALL3 Media, along with ex-ITV programming chief David Liddiment.

But the company became the big winner in the ruthless rounds of celebrity consolidation which eventually resulted in a single ITV, thanks to the merger with sole other survivor Carlton in 2004. Along the way it managed to wrestle away a heap of other prizes, including United Business Media's share in the broadcaster from a certain Clive Hollick, to name but one.

Dyke, Bland and Hollick all went on to become leading figures elsewhere, but they are just three of a virtual Who's Who in media, which at the time also included David Elstein, now owner of the Hallmark Channel. Many, like Dyke who became BBC director general and Michael Grade – nephew of ITV pioneer Lew Grade – now BBC chairman, later did their best to put ITV to the sword. Former ITV chief executive Richard Eyre became a BBC governor, before taking up various roles including chair of the Internet Advertising Bureau and a director at Guardian Media Group.

Carlton's ex-boss Michael Green is busy looking to buy up media companies with his considerable fortune.

Others now working for ITV's opposition include Thames alumni Andy Barnes, sales boss at C4; Nick Milligan, managing director of Sky Media; his right-hand man Paul Curtis; Mark Howe, MD at IDS, and Nick Bampton, who heads Viacom Brand Solutions.

Others have ventured into fresh fields, including David Mansfield at GCap and Linda Smith, at Capital Radio.

Whereas ITV Sales managing director Graham Duff forged his career in the agency world, some have gone the other way, including PHD's Jonathan Durden and Tess Alps, Initiative's Jerry Hill and ZenithOptimedia's Steve King.

On the marketing front, ex- ITV figures include Jim Hytner (Barclays), Marc Sands (Guardian Newspapers) and John Hardie (Disney)

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