How to heal an ailing channel

Hit shows such as Doc Martin are helping ITV to bounce back after a dreadful summer for ratings, says Raymond Snoddy
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The Independent Online

Charles Allen, the beleaguered Scot who runs ITV, pauses for a moment to sip a New World chardonnay called Bannockburn before confirming one of his undoubted strengths. "If nothing else can be said, I'm pretty tenacious," says Allen, who has managed the commercial broadcaster through one of the toughest periods in its history.

Charles Allen, the beleaguered Scot who runs ITV, pauses for a moment to sip a New World chardonnay called Bannockburn before confirming one of his undoubted strengths. "If nothing else can be said, I'm pretty tenacious," says Allen, who has managed the commercial broadcaster through one of the toughest periods in its history.

No one could for a moment begrudge the ITV executive the use of that qualifier "tenacious". The 47-year-old management accountant has survived the ITV Digital débâcle, outlived the shareholders' coup that blocked the planned ITV chairmanship of the Carlton founder Michael Green, and held on during a catastrophic collapse in ratings over this summer.

Perhaps the greatest threat, although it never turned into substance, was the unexpected arrival on the job market of Greg Dyke, following his bitter resignation as the director-general of the BBC in the wake of the Hutton report. "Even if you have a good striker, if Thierry Henry comes on the market you have got to consider him," is how one ITV director describes the thinking at the time. But, just as quickly, the notion was rejected because Dyke was seen as high-risk. There was no knowing what he might do or say - and, anyway, Allen was doing a reasonable job. It would have been unfair to remove him.

As a result, the Dyke threat remained latent, and was never discussed by the ITV board. It has now gone away entirely. Instead, Dyke has taken revenge on the Government in his memoirs, Inside Story, published this week. Someone throwing hand grenades at the Government would not be welcome at a time when ITV is involved in tricky negotiations to reduce the £400m-a-year cost of licence fees and public-service obligations.

Allen can sip his wine over lunch, basking in ITV's better-than-expected results: pre-tax interim profits were nearly a third up at £132m, and the savings promised from the merger of Gran- ada and Carlton that created ITV plc have increased from £100m to £120m.

"I have been doing this job for 12 years and there has always been pressure. My approach to life is, 'Fine. Let's get on with it and judge me on performance, and judge me by results,'" Allen says. He goes further, insisting that he has enjoyed the past six months - when the complexity of the problems he faced were at their greatest - more than any period for years.

Despite the calm he is now exuding, the jury is still out on one vital aspect of Charles Allen's reign. It was well summed up by the Numis media analyst Lorna Tilbian after Allen pulled such good financial results out of the hat. "What is missing, in our view, is an on-screen performance to match that of the plc," Tilbian argued.

So far this year, ITV's audience share is 6 per cent down on the same period last year. The commercial broadcaster can blame the dreadful summer on the Olympics, Big Brother on Channel 4 and the fact that the BBC launched some of its heavy-hitting dramas, such as Silent Witness, early this year.

Things could get very bloody for all concerned if the much-touted autumn schedule, which includes everything from the return of I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here to Miss Marple and Doc Martin, fails to deliver.

So far, there are positive signs. Doc Martin, with Martin Clunes, has enjoyed audiences of more than nine million; you have to go back to Helen Mirren and Prime Suspect to match that. Doc Martin is a good example of what the new ITV is trying to achieve: big, noticeable dramas fronted by well-known actors, along the lines of the American TV model.

"It's got to be big. It's got to be dramatic, and it's got to be talked-about television," is how Allen explains his vision for ITV - before admitting that one of the channel's recent flops, The Block, had not really met the criteria.

As ITV pursues a blockbuster strategy for ITV1, it recognises that the most certain way to hold on to overall audience share in a multi-channel world is to increase investment in its digital channels. At the start of November, ITV3 - a channel aimed at the over-35s - will take its place alongside ITV2 and ITV News.

The channels will cross-promote each other and will be scheduled in a complementary way. When football is on ITV1, ITV2 will offer programming for women, and ITV3 will feature drama. A lifestyle channel aimed at women is a future possibility, and an ITV Sports channel has not been ruled out.

As ITV1 will inevitably lose some of its audience as more people have access to several hundred channels. But executives are convinced that overall growth is possible when the new digital channels are included.

Another arm of ITV strategy involves co-operation with the other terrestrial broadcasters, the BBC, Channel 4 and Five. In the digital age, the argument goes, co-operation and the avoidance of duplicated costs will be a necessity.

ITV believes the potential for co-operation is greater because new people are in charge at all of the UK's terrestrial broadcasters. Ancient feuds have, as a result, been left behind. Dyke, for example, has never forgiven Granada executives such as Allen for the hostile takeover of London Weekend Television that left him unemployed.

Allen says: "My view is that over the next five years there will be more collaboration than head-to-head competition. We all have issues to deal with, some bigger than others. Because we were able to put the merger in place, we are out of the traps earlier than anybody else."

ITV is interested in exploring with the BBC the possibility of setting up joint "creative hubs" in Scotland, Wales or Manchester. The company would also like to have talks with their terrestrial rivals on creating a co-operative effort on sales of overseas programmes. Over the next few years, ITV will also take on the ambitious task of trying to re-position television in the minds of the marketing community - once again selling the very idea of commercial TV.

The ITV chief executive may appear to grow more relaxed as the tension mounts, but you can be sure he will be watching nervously as the ratings come in over the next few weeks. Both ITV and Allen look as if they are turning the corner, but both will have to demonstrate that they can deliver audiences before a sceptical City is satisfied.

Certainly, for now Allen isn't going anywhere. He is already thinking in terms of a five-year horizon. "If I didn't want to do this job, I don't really need to do it. I'm doing it because I really want to do it," says the multi-millionaire broadcasting executive - who remains nothing if not tenacious.