'Cracker' of a solution to ITV's rating slide

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The Independent Online

ITV1 is to focus on mass appeal entertainment programmes to try to stabilise the struggling channel.

ITV plc said its main ITV1 station "clearly remains the priority" as half-year results released yesterday laid bare the scale of problems at the channel.

The company's director of television, Simon Shaps, said the "USP (Unique Selling Point) of ITV1" was big event shows such as Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Take Away, Dancing on Ice, and the reality series X-Factor and I'm a Celebrity.

The station will carry less children's programming and will also reduce high-cost drama, both of which underperform. The two-part 90-minute dramas that ITV has been showing have not been rating successes and have been hard to sell internationally. Wildlife programming will also go. For "those elusive upmarket viewers", ITV1 plans "channel defining" factual series, contemporary drama - including Cracker and Prime Suspect this autumn - and also more adventurous drama, and the reintroduction of comedy into the heart of the schedule. For the first time in nine years, there will be a US series in peak-time in 2007. Altogether, 23 new shows are planned. "We are confident we have the building blocks in the autumn schedule to reinvigorate ITV1," Mr Shaps said.

But ITV revealed that the recent plunge in ratings - ITV1's share of the commercial audience fell from 37.5 per cent to 34.2 per cent in the first half - had taken a heavy toll on advertising revenues. For the first six months of 2006, ad sales were down 8 per cent at ITV1 and in the current quarter - covering July, August and September - they had plunged 17 per cent.

Charles Allen, who announced his resignation as chief executive this week, said: "Despite a tough display advertising market, these results show that our strategy for developing our businesses outside ITV1 is delivering and they continue to grow at an impressive rate. Our focus remains on revitalising the ITV1 schedule performance and the autumn and winter schedules are looking strong."

Revenues outside ITV1 advertising grew 25 per cent to £423m. ITV's other channels performed strongly, as did the company's nascent consumer division. These digital channels grew ad revenues by 46 per cent in the first half, to £70m, as viewing increased by 12 per cent. Revenues at the consumer business jumped 300 per cent to £69m, with the gaming station ITV Play delivering a £9m profit and the website Friends Reunited growing revenues by 50 per cent to £8m.

The in-house programme production business saw sales outside ITV increase 9 per cent to £127m but its total sales slumped 7 per cent to £307m.

Overall group revenues rose by 3 per cent to £1.1bn, while underlying operating earnings edged up 1 per cent to £205m. The group-wide figures beat expectations, sending ITV shares up 4 per cent to 102.5p. Analysts said third-quarter trading at ITV1 was not as bad as some had feared.

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