Media industry's old guard faces trial by new technology

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The Independent Online

Charles Allen's imminent departure from ITV springs from the crisis in traditional consumer media, not merely the problems at ITV alone.

From television to newspapers to radio, advertising revenues and confidence is being sucked out of the old-fashioned consumer media. And that means the management of these companies is under extreme pressure to turn the situation around quickly or be thrown out.

Just over a decade ago, media companies exercised near monopolies, with high barriers to entry and assured revenues and audiences. Today the situation is dramatically different but few traditional media companies have shown any boldness, let alone evidence of getting to grips with audience fragmentation and the rise and rise of the internet and other "disruptive" technologies.

Mark Beilby, an analyst at Dresdner Kleinwort, says: "There is an unquantifiable but insistent sense of attrition ... one noted industry commentator told us that 'beneath the bravado there is a developing sense of desperation'."

Trinity Mirror, the biggest newspaper publisher in the country, put up a big "for sale" sign last week. Earlier this year, Daily Mail & General Trust tried to offload its vast stable of regional papers but could find no takers at the £1.5bn asking price.

GCap Media, the market leader in the radio sector, has had to issue multiple profit warnings after being unable to stem steep decline at its main station Capital Radio.

Emap, which has a huge consumer magazine and radio business, has also been in profit warning mode. SMG, the owner of Virgin Radio, Pearl & Dean cinema advertising and two ITV franchises, has just parted company with its long-serving chief executive, Andrew Flanagan.

BSkyB, the leading subscription television operator, has had to change its business model to embrace internet distribution, after spending billions on building up its satellite network.

The sales of monthly glossy magazines are under assault from the success of cheaper weeklies.

In most of these cases, it is possible to point to specific management failures but really the issue is structural change, which has taken away eyeballs and advertising money. The choice of television and radio stations has multiplied and consumers are spending more and more time on the web, rather than reading newspapers or watching television.

This year, more will be spent in the UK on web advertising than ads in national newspapers.

Charles Allen has delivered a smooth merger at ITV and a long series of regulatory wins. But he is going because he has not been able to tackle steep declines in viewers and advertising money at the company's core ITV1 channel.

Simon Terrington, a founding director at Human Capital, a media consultancy, says: "There is a creative panic [among traditional media]. The internet is where the creative engine is now. The likes of GCap and ITV have shown themselves capable of managing costs and handling regulators. But they have been too defensive. With that approach, you lose your confidence."

By contrast, Mr Terrington points out, Channel 4 and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp - the parent company of Sky - have "embraced" the internet. Channel 4, in particular, has shown it is possible to be a free-to-air broadcaster and maintain market share, even as the number of channels available in an average household mushrooms.

Paul Richards, an analyst at Numis Securities, says: "You've got to be brave, creative and embrace disruptive technologies. Tinkering at the edges just ain't going to work."

ITV has launched a series of digital channels - which arguably counts as new media in the television sector - but its online strategy seems to be pinned on one bizarre acquisition, of the networking website Friends Reunited, for £120m.

Mr Beilby says the advent of new media has meant that media companies have had to increase rapidly the level of investment, mostly to buy existing online operators. This is what he terms "maintenance" capital expenditure - that is, an attempt just to try to preserve historical revenues. It is not a growth strategy. Often these purchases have lacked coherence or have been pulled off on terms that demonstrate "desperation".

Mr Beilby adds: "The impulse for traditional media companies to buy internet communities and e-commerce sites appears as implicit recognition that the acquiring traditional media companies lack the expertise to build their own businesses and that their own brands are not readily transferable online."

Some media companies have decided they must enter new markets because their core activities are not capable of revival. A case in point is the acquisition by US newspaper group EW Scripps, earlier this year, of USwitch, which compares the prices of home services such as electricity supply and telephony in the UK, for an amazing £210m. Yesterday, SMG made a similar move, with the purchase of price comparison website Peopleschampion.com.

Regional newspaper publishers have pulled off a string of deals to acquire classified advertising sites. Yet the likes of Trinity Mirror and DMGT maintain there is no evidence of advertising migrating from newspapers to the web - which raises the question of why they are spending tens of millions buying these sites up.

Specialist media businesses such as Reed Elsevier have been able to flourish in the digital world. For traditional consumer media, the experience is expensive - News Corp paid $580m (£300m) for social networking site MySpace - with highly uncertain returns.

The excitement in the consumer media world today is all on the internet, from the launch of new bands to globally popular blogs. The difficulty comes in finding synergies between these online activities and the traditional media business - usually it is simply one of promotional power - and in creating a viable business model from the internet.

Runners and riders to succeed Charles Allen at ITV

DAWN AIREY: The 45-year-old has been head of content in the tough world of BSkyB since 2003. Previously she was chief executive of Channel Five. Highly rated, although she has never been a programme maker.

GREG DYKE: Former director general of the BBC certainly has the credentials to lead ITV but his chances have been damaged by leading a bitter, shambolic bid for the company. Mr Dyke, 59, had a previous career at ITV franchise companies.

ANDY DUNCAN: Chief executive of Channel 4 since July 2004, he has done a remarkable job there. Mr Duncan, 44, has put in place a convincing strategic direction for the broadcaster and a successful multichannel and mobile/internet business. Was in marketing at Unilever before joining the BBC in 2001.

STEPHEN CARTER: Considered by some to have the perfect CV for the job. Mr Carter, 42, has just stepped down as chief executive of media regulator Ofcom. He was previously managing director of NTL. Faces serious charges of having a conflict of interest - much of the job of an ITV chief executive is to lobby Ofcom.

* THE REST OF THE PACK: The ITV board met yesterday to consider the departure of the chief executive, Charles Allen. He is expected to be in place until a successor is found. ITV will appoint headhunters, although there is an obvious list of excellent candidates. Among those who stand a good chance, if interested in the job, would be Tony Ball, the combative former chief executive of Sky. However, he made so much money in his previous job that he is unlikely to be tempted. Malcolm Wall, the head of the content arm of NTL and previously chief operating officer at United Business Media, is another credible candidate. Jane Lighting, the chief executive of Channel Five, is another contender. Some have given an outside chance to Mike Clasper, an ITV non-executive director who was previously chief executive of BAA.

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