ITV chiefs seek to build defences against C5

Films and new programmes aimed at combating a fall in the ratings
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The Independent Online

Media Editor

ITV chiefs have held a top-level conference to thrash out a new strategy to halt its decline in the ratings battle with the BBC, Channel 4 and satellite and cable television, it was revealed yesterday.

Senior executives on the ITV Network Centre Broadcast Board went to Belfast last month to discuss how to bring forward a range of new popular programming - some to be made especially for this autumn - to strengthen a number of weak spots in the schedules. It is also expected to screen some big Hollywood movies.

Insiders confirm that the board has had frank discussions about its weak points, which any senior ITV executive who defected to the new Channel 5 could exploit.

ITV's share of peak time audiences has fallen from 42.7 per cent in January/May 1994 to the current 40.6 per cent. In contrast, the BBC's share has risen from 34.2 per cent to 34.8 per cent.

ITV executives are particularly concerned about getting the right competitive mix of programmes for 1997, when an unashamedly populist Channel 5 is expected to start. These have to be commissioned this year to be ready in time.

One senior commercial television executive confirmed yesterday that ITV's apparent success in the early Nineties, with programmes such as Heartbeat, Cracker, Peak Practice, London's Burning, obscured the fact that there had been very little innovation, which meant there was a lack of new popular formats to exploit.

The ITV companies are split between those that are prepared to buttress the programme budget, by perhaps another pounds 40m a year, to enhance output with extra big dramas, and others who wish to keep a lid on spending.

Granada, for example, which is a major programme producer, is prepared to raise budgets while other less successful programme-making companies are not.

Weak spots identified by ITV include News at Ten (which Channel 4 regularly uses as a starting point for drama or films) and World in Action; Thursday and Saturday evenings; Tuesdays at 7.30pm when BBC1 screens EastEnders; and weekday afternoons, early evenings and after 10.40pm. The channel is particularly frustrated by the political flak it ran into over plans to move the time of the news, while each licence holder has to schedule a range of regional programming.

John Fairley, the former chairman of the ITV Broadcast Board and managing director of Yorkshire Television, who has jumped ship to become chief executive of UKTV which is bidding for Channel 5, said yesterday: "Channel 5 will un-ashamedly seek to provide popular programmes at times when the other channels don't. We think there are plenty of opportunities".

t Premier, Britain's first Christian radio station which began broadcasting in London and the South-east at the weekend, is already facing calls for its licence to be revoked. The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement wrote yesterday to the Radio Authority accusing the station of "stigmatising and excluding" lesbian and gay people "avowedly living an active homosexual lifestyle".

BBC drama revival, section two page 16