100 days to save the sinking channel

Down market, and down in ratings. Is there nothing ITV can do right? Rob Brown considers the state of play in advance of a crucial strategy meeting designed to fight the multi-channel challenges head on.

There will be no soap stars or game show hosts in attendance today when the new strategy for reviving ITV is unveiled at the QE2 Conference Centre in London. Celebrities of all sorts have been kept off the guest list in order to emphasise the serious theme of the presentation - to advertising and marketing executives - Britain's biggest commercial channel means business.

In a bold attempt to restore confidence in ITV - which has been losing audience share to both its terrestrial and cable and satellite rivals - the network's new managing triumvirate will announce that, for the first time, they are prepared to set public targets for peak time audiences. Although the targets will not serve as guarantees to advertisers, they are bound to become the key benchmark against which this trio's performance will be judged.

ITV's share of total audience has dwindled from 44 per cent of peak time in 1994 to under 39 per cent in 1997. Its share of total advertising revenue has similarly slipped from 72 per cent four years ago to 65 per cent last year. With Channel 5 getting into its stride and the advent of digital television set to fragment audiences still further, media analysts believe it will be doing well if it can maintain its annual advertising revenue at pounds 1.68bn this year.

Publicly declared peak time targets is the main new policy to emerge from the "one hundred day" mission statement drawn up by Richard Eyre, the new chief executive of the ITV Network Centre. Mr Eyre, previously group managing director of the Capital Radio group, will be flanked at today's presentation by the director of programmes David Liddiment, who was hired from Granada, and the marketing director John Hardie, who swapped soap powders at Procter & Gamble for soap operas.

Liddiment is expected to wax lyrical about changes to the "architecture" of the ITV schedule. Drama will remain the bedrock of its peak time offerings, but there are plans to lessen the dependence on expensive fiction by developing more popular factual programmes.

Liddiment has hired two of the BBC's top talents to spearhead ITV's push into this programming area. Steve Anderson, former editor of Watchdog, has become the networks controller of news and current affairs whilst Grant Mansfield is the new controller of documentaries and features. He was previously responsible for ratings hits such as The Driving School and Vet School.

The great attraction of such programmes to TV schedulers is that they cost considerably less than top-notch dramas to produce, but they can pull in audiences almost as large if you get them right. They have certainly done the business in recent times for BBC 1.

Advertisers are especially keen to see ITV win back audience share from the corporation's mainstream network, which does not of course carry any commercials.

ITV's audience profile, generally more down-market and older than that of its rivals, is also a problem in the eyes of many advertisers. Media buyers (the hard-nosed number crunchers who purchase slots for commercials) are increasingly obsessed with the 16-to-34 age group and want to purchase air time around programmes which deliver that key demographic.

Channel 4's cult US sitcom Friends can deliver 15 per cent of that category. It charges pounds 40,000 for a national 30 second spot around that programme. In contrast, ITV charges pounds 90,000 for a half-minute commercial in the middle of Coronation Street.

ITV has also struggled to raise a laugh in recent years and would dearly love to develop some successful new comedy strands. But Liddiment knows that it will remain difficult to locate the nation's funny bone.

Sports still looks a safer bet when it comes to attracting another elusive audience - up-market men. ITV has been making some progress in its pursuit of more ABC 1 male viewers by screening sports such as Formula One car racing and international rugby matches. This strategy will step up a gear now that is has poached the BBC's head of sports Brian Barwick.

Because of the time lag in commissioning and then producing major new series, the big changes at ITV won't really start to feed through to the schedules until 1999. But their network will set a peak time target for this year.

The 100-day manifesto is a marketing trick adapted from US presidents, who are often judged on their performance in that opening period. But in many respects ITV remains more like another North American nation, Canada. It too is a loose federation, made up of 15 regional stations which often find it hard to agree on a collective strategy. Scottish Television is fast shaping up as its equivalent of Quebec, pushing for more autonomy or what it calls "affiliate" status.

With a devolved Scottish parliament on the horizon, Scottish has also been exploring the possibility of producing its own national and international news programme for the first time. But it is unlikely to finalise its proposals until it becomes clear what the Network Centre intends to do with News at Ten. There has been strong speculation since 1993 that the flagship news programme will be moved to an earlier time slot to clear the way for more ratings driven dramas and movies.

The issue will not be confronted head-on at today's meeting. The new trio in charge of ITV are obviously not prepared to risk at this stage the wrath of politicians on both sides of the House of Commons, especially not in the QE2 Conference Centre - located just a stone's throw away from the Palace of Westminster.