ITV in crucial meeting as audience levels dwindle

Advertisers increase pressure over high cost of buying airtime. Maggie Brown reports
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The Independent Online
The council of top businessmen who run ITV are holding an emergency meeting today over falling audiences and complaints by advertisers about the high cost of buying airtime.

They have to decide whether to bow to pressure and make a case to the Independent Television Commission for increasing advertising time by 30 seconds to eight minutes an hour.

But a more likely outcome will be a boost of up to pounds 60m for ITV's pounds 550m network programme budget because the ITC fears viewers would be driven away by more commercials.

Television advertisers are watching hawkishly to see what next month's launch of the autumn programme schedule promises: the ITV Network Centre, which commissions and schedules, is known to be drawing up battle plans for a big fight back with extra blockbuster films and specials, such as one-hour editions of The Bill. Moving News at Ten is an option sure to be on the medium-term agenda, but unlikely to be immediately implemented.

Advertisers are the effective paymasters of commercial television and have an acute interest in the audiences programmes deliver to them. They are taking a much more public interest in what is being screened. The crucial issue is the way peak-time evening ratings have dwindled by, on average, 3 percentage points to around 37 per cent since the start of the year.

Yesterday in an interview on Radio 4, Marcus Plantin, the ITV network director, said there was no crisis, though ITV had been "bitten around the ankles" by the improved performance of its rivals. He said ITV would fight back "with a really strong autumn schedule".

While ITV's lacklustre spring and summer performance is the main target, the advertising industry is critical of the way the BBC, in its view, has not stuck to the programme high ground of the 1993 Extending Choice document, to which the incoming director general, John Birt, nailed his colours. Instead it is competing with some highly "commercial" programming. Some recent BBC dramas, such as Dangerfield and The Vet, have been attacked as derivative. It is also expanding a new range of light entertainment shows, such as How Do They Do That, Memory Mastermind and Pets Win Prizes.

Nick Phillips, the director general of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, says: "The BBC uses very clever language, but it does make copycat programmes which are very commercial. The BBC is having its cake and eating it."

The IPA wants ITV to spend more on network programming: the 3.8 per cent rise (to pounds 550m) in 1994 was, in its view, not good enough considering the 11 per cent rise in revenue the sector enjoyed. "They are having a very successful time. They should be able to afford more," Mr Phillips said.

Adrian Birchall, chairman and chief executive of The Media Centre and a leading industry spokesman, said agencies were supportive of calls for more commercial airtime, provided research showed it did not drive people away, worsening ITV's problems.