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Advertisers stir up a war with BBC

A television ratings war is set to break out after powerful advertisers urged the ITV network to measure itself only against the BBC. Paul McCann, Media Correspondent, explains the background to the battle for our control buttons.

ITV has been issued with a warning from advertising agencies to boost its falling ratings by taking on the BBC rather than trying to compete with Channel 4 and Channel 5.

The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, the trade body for the advertising and media-buying industry, has asked ITV's new chief executive Richard Eyre to create a "benchmark" level of ITV viewing figures against the BBC.

When Mr Eyre joined ITV from Capital Radio in the autumn he asked advertisers to give him 100 days to devise a strategy for ITV's revival. He will be presenting that strategy later this month.

While he is believed to be planning an assault on BBC1 in particular, Mr Eyre is thought to be unwilling to set a specific target for taking viewers from the BBC because of the likelihood of the BBC raising its game in response.

Mr Eyre has prepared for taking on the BBC by stealing a number of ideas and senior broadcasters from the corporation, including Grant Mansfield, the man behind "real people" programme successes such as The Driving School and Airport. He has also hired David Baddiel and Frank Skinner to present a World Cup version of their popular Fantasy Football.

Advertisers are pressing for the assault on the BBC because ITV's share of viewing has fallen rapidly in the last five years to under 34 per cent as satellite and cable channels have stolen viewers. While ITV has been slipping the BBC has managed to hold onto its share of about 41 per cent when both BBC 1 and BBC 2 are added together.

The IPA is worried that ITV may try to bolster its audience share by taking viewers from Channel 4 and Channel 5 rather than the BBC. They are against this because it does nothing to increase the total number of viewers who see their adverts. Advertisers pay for airtime on ITV in a bizarre way that can mean they pay more per viewer as ratings fall, and they have seen their media costs rise well above the rate of inflation over the last three years.

Mr Eyre was appointed by ITV and given sweeping executive powers following criticism from advertisers that the network's federal system meant big players such as Carlton, Granada and United News & Media were competing more with each other than with external rivals.

As competition from new broadcasters has eaten into their audience share commercial broadcasters have become increasingly angry about what they see as the popularisation of the BBC's schedules. ITV and some of its advertisers have criticised the BBC for winning a renewal of its Charter by promising distinct programming not seen on other channels. Instead, they argue, the BBC is competing directly with commercial channels with mass-market soap operas, games shows and fly on the wall "real people" television programmes.