Big dramas kept off the screen by ITV budget worries

ITV is sitting on a stockpile of expensive drama because of commercial television's financial squeeze.

A number of high-quality dramas originally announced 18 months ago or more, such as The Mayor of Casterbridge, starring Ciaran Hinds, are still awaiting transmission.

The list also includes Paula Milne's thriller Thursday the Twelfth, which had to be delayed at the time of last year's general election because the main character is a Labour politician. Other dramas, including Plain Jane by Lucy Gannon, starring Kevin Whately, and The Lucky Ones, starring Sarah Lancashire, were expected to be shown earlier this year but have only just been scheduled.

New Poirot mysteries, a drama-documentary about Harold Shipman and adaptations of Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim and the children's classic Pollyanna have been commissioned but not yet seen. Nick Elliott, the network's drama controller, admitted part of the reason was the substitution of less expensive programmes, such as documentaries.

Under ITV's accounting system, investment in programmes is only recorded after a show has gone out. "There will be no drama on Sunday nights for the next few months and it's a long time since that was the case," Mr Elliott said.

ITV is also wary of blowing its big-event investments, such as The Mayor of Casterbridge, without a return. It will only schedule costume dramas likely to appeal to an ABC1 audience if advertisers want to reach such an audience.

ITV recently aired The Forsyte Saga, a remake of the BBC's John Galsworthy classic. The high-profile drama's audience fell after BBC1 aggressively scheduled the return of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet against it.

Yet there are signs that the advertising recession, the worst television and publishing have suffered for decades, may be nearing an end.

The collapse in advertising revenue last year meant ITV's 2002 budget was at first fixed at £750m. But media buyers have detected solid signs of improvement over the next few months and ITV has been buoyed by its release from the millstone of ITV Digital.

Yesterday it announced its budget freeze was over and released an extra £28m to be spent this year. All but £3m will go towards ITV1's network programme budget, meaning more money for drama as well as entertainment and daytime programmes. The remainder will be spent in the regions.

ITV also plans to change the timeslot of its late-night regional news bulletins from after 11pm to 10.20pm, to follow News at Ten. The decision will bring ITV in line with the BBC, whose regional programmes screen at 10.25pm and fare much better in the ratings.

The network privately admits the loss of Richard and Judy and Home and Away severely dented its daytime schedule last year and contributed to BBC1 beating ITV in its overall share of the ratings for the first time.

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