ITV bets on drama to woo agency buyers and clients

With many of ITV1’s top programmes showing a marked slump in viewer ratings, Ian Quinn hears how the broadcaster plans to turn things around and gets reaction from some industry bosses.

A star presenter introduced an apt theme to the annual unveiling of ITV's autumn schedule at its South Bank studios.

The special appearance was not of master of ceremonies Graham Duff, patrolling in the maze of corridors backstage with a microphone, but one of ITV's established on-screen big guns, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? host Chris Tarrant.

At the end of the presentation, he put a terrified Chris Hayward, head of TV at ZenithOptimedia, through the ordeal of a special version of his show. But it was surely director of programmes Nigel Pickard who must have felt even more like the rabbit staring into the headlights when he earlier outlined ITV's autumn line-up.

Despite its many successes as a commercial organisation of late, ITV is desperate to convince the agency TV buyers and clients who filled the auditorium that its schedule, particularly on struggling flagship channel ITV1, has what it takes to be a winner.

There must have been many times recently that Pickard has wished he could, like Hayward, phone a friend.

Sadly for ITV, there is no easy answer on the end of a line, or even a coughing co-conspirator to call on for inspiration, as it battles against the relentless march of channel fragmentation, which has reduced the audience numbers even of its established hits.

ITV is at pains to point out that it is not the only terrestrial giant in the firing line, but extra pressure has been piled on the broadcaster because of the well-publicised flops and disappointments in its spring/summer line-up, including the infamous Celebrity Wrestling and Celebrity Love Island.

ITV's strategy, on the face of it, could not be more straightforward.

It is planning to fill its autumn schedule with star-studded dramas, featuring well-known faces it thinks it can rely upon to bring in the big audiences. The broadcaster, in its 50th year, believes it can call on the ingredients of past successes, when it most needs them. Set to be backed by a major marketing campaign, the line-up features big names such as Ricky Tomlinson and David Jason. ITV has decided that it can't afford to take any risks.

At the presentation, Pickard said: "It's clear to us that ITV1must deliver on its unique selling point as the channel of mass audiences. ITV1 at its best still has enormous pulling power. When ITV brings out its big guns, it has real firepower."

Pickard cannot afford to fire many more blanks, because despite the growing importance of the ITV family of digital channels, its flagship, ITV1, remains key to its success.

So what do the agencies, armed with ever more channels to choose from, think about ITV's strategy?

Hayward believes ITV chose the right option in being upfront about its programming plight.

"I was heartened by the acknowledgement of the mistakes they’ve made," he says. "They have to address the situation of ITV1. There's a massive job for them to restore confidence in the channel, which must have taken a battering in recent months, with everybody talking about the failure of programmes like Celebrity Wrestling."

Hayward was also encouraged at a line-up featuring lots of light drama, which he believes is ITV1's key weapon, and the inclusion of dependable, bankable stars.

"I’m not at all disheartened that old dependables are popping up," he notes. "They seem to have stopped the policy of mass booking second-rate former EastEnders characters and, instead, have concentrated on attracting people like Caroline Quentin, Ray Winstone and Martin Clunes. People who can actually act. They are going to be the key to ITV's future health."

Digital success

Hayward also believes ITV was right to spend the vast majority of the presentation concentrating on plans for ITV1, rather than talk too much about its success in launching digital channels ITV2, ITV3 and, the soon to arrive, ITV4.

"I definitely don't think they should be distracted from recognising the importance of ITV1 and the importance of drama in it."

The viewing figures for ITV and other terrestrial players resemble the sort of grim horror story to be found elsewhere in some of the darker dramas in its autumn line-up.

David Bergg, director of programme strategy, told the audience that, with 70% of UK population now in multi-channel homes, and with the number of channels leaping from 181 in July 2003 to 241 in July 2005 – and showing no signs of slowing – the impact on ratings had been savage. During the fourth quarter of 1993, 1,635 programmes on TV got audiences of more than four million, said Bergg, with 27,735 getting under one million.

By the first quarter of this year, just 944 programmes got four million- plus viewers with 418,799 programmes, a massive 99%, getting under one million. To make matters worse, only half of those big audiences were on commercial TV, a tiny 0.1% of all output.

Even ITV's biggest shows are suffering massive audience falls. So far this year, compared to 2004, the audience for The Bill is down 9%, Coronation Street's has dipped 8% and Midsomer Murders is down 9%.

Yet Bergg stresses that ITV1's terrestrial rivals are suffering just as badly and that it still dominated the, albeit far reduced, marketplace.

One thing is for sure. In the age of the contract rights renewal – which links advertising revenue to programme performance like never before – the broadcaster knows it still must chase ratings just as much as it diversifies to become a true multi-channel provider.

Tom George, joint managing director at Mediaedge:cia, believes ITV is right to take an old fashioned approach to its ITV1 autumn line-up.

"Any autumn schedule is vital, because that's where the majority of revenue comes in," he says. "It's clearly even more vital in a CRR dictated marketplace and in what ITV has accurately described as a massively competitive environment.

"This line-up is absolutely critical to them and it seems to do what it says on the tin," he adds. "I don't think they have any option but to chase volume. They experimented across the spring and the summer, with some shows that were chasing after a slightly younger profile.

"Shows like Celebrity Wrestling were an abject failure, whereas others like Celebrity Love Island looked like being a failure, but managed to recover a bit despite being savaged in the press.

"Now they've obviously decided on a no-risk strategy and it looks like a very strong line-up."

Judgement making

As always, results and final ratings will be key and seasoned players in the agency world will not rely on a slickly put-together show of highlights to make their judgements.

Andrew Burke, chief executive of BT Entertainment, one of many marketing bosses in the audience, however, was among those left with the impression that ITV is clear on its strategy. "It's going more and more mass market – more and more block-buster formats," he says.

Pickard, Bergg and Duff must all now feel a bit like those contestants asked by Tarrant, "is that your final answer", as they wait to see if the formats work when it comes to the viewing figures.

ITV may have done enough in other departments not to go away empty handed if ITV1 doesn't do the business this autumn, but it is almost certain that many agency and client cheques will be heading elsewhere if that's the case.

ITV1 brings out the big hitters in bid to increase its ratings

From small screen bruiser Ray Winstone to Welsh boxer Joe Calzaghe, ITV1 is relying on big hitters to turn around its ratings.

Winstone plays a no nonsense detective, resembling The Sweeney's Jack Regan, in Vincent. There is certainly no shortage of big stars or detective shows, with Robert Lindsay due to play a 1950s gumshoe in Jericho.

Caroline Quentin should guarantee plenty of wet handkerchiefs, playing a woman left crippled after an accident in Footprints in the Snow, while Ricky Tomlinson, in a reprise of his film role, should provoke a few tears of laughter as he plays Mike Bassett, Football Manager – although one or two pointed out that ITV used this in its spring/summer presentation.

David Jason, is back in another series of the bankable Touch of Frost, although Afterlife, starring Andrew Lincoln – one of many dark as dark can-be dramas in the line-up – looks more like one which could go either way.

ITV has persuaded Matthew Kelly to play a serial killer and has even persuaded David Tennant, alias the new Doctor Who, to play a creepy bad guy.

Martin Clunes, in a return of the popular Doc Martin – ITV sales head Gary Digby's favourite show – brings some lighter relief, while Parky is promising his most star-studded line-up.

ITV is banking on the return of the X-Factor and I’m a Celebrity…Get Me out of Here to keep the reality show concept alive.

ITV3 will feature proven hits such as Taggart, Morse and Mr Chips, while ITV4, set to chase a younger male demographic when it launches on 1 November will, along with ITV1, include top class boxing in its line-up.

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