Krishnan Guru-Murthy On Broadcasting
Something about ITV just feels wrong. It's no longer tuned in to us
Monday 07 August 2006
"One bad month does not a bad year make" declared one bruised but bullish ITV exec, insisting that in a few weeks they'll have X-Factor, I'm a Celebrity and Ant and Dec all back on air and audience share returned to something that puts a more respectable distance between ITV and Channel 4. Charles Allen is not hanging his head in shame just yet. He knows City investors are less bothered by newspaper headlines than the papers would like.
When his time comes, rather like Tony Blair, regular use of phrases like "tough decisions" and "doing what needed to be done" will ensure his legacy can be spun reasonably well. In fact, ITV's defence almost sounds convincing as they point out that, across the first half of 2006, they have a bigger share than Channel 4, Five, Sky One, Sky Sports One and E4 all put together.
In the same period, they claim ITV1 has run 23 new titles that got more than five million viewers and made the top 300 programmes on commercial television. OK, Emmerdale and Coronation Street help the numbers, but Simon Shaps has put together a talented band of commissioning editors who are trying to smarten up the output.
Strategically, ITV has invested at last in a fairly convincing multi-channel vision. And it is innovating. This autumn, ITV1 will become the first mainstream television network you will be able to watch around the clock on a mobile phone. Doing the deal with the 3 network won't deliver many viewers, but it's a start.
If other mobile networks follow it might eventually become a credible stream of revenue. The trouble is that while the flagship channel, ITV1, feels so troubled, will anyone young enough to know how to watch TV on a mobile bother to tune in? Because, while the suits upstairs at Grays Inn Road want to dismiss July as "meaningless in the grand scheme of things", there have been some critical moments that are worth picking over.
The failure of Love Island was not just a one-off. ITV must surely now feel that putting it and Bad Lads Army against Big Brother was a strategic mistake that sacrificed perfectly decent programmes that had life in them yet for the sake of taking on the Channel 4 reality juggernaut. But the really shocking moment was the World Cup Final. The nation deserted ITV1, despite the fact it was showing exactly the same thing as BBC1. Perhaps that summed up the way we feel about the channel.
Something about ITV just feels wrong. It has lost that feeling of being tuned in to us. From Bruce Forsyth to Inspector Morse and the Rovers Return, from Chris Tarrant to Cilla Black and World in Action, this was a network that had its finger on the nation's pulse.
But these days, ITV1 doesn't fill you with the kind of Rolls Royce dependability that BBC1 oozes, or the aspirational, funky intelligence of Channel 4. Even Five seems to have a greater sense of what it is for if, as in my home, the baby punches it up by accident while chewing the remote control. And news that television gaming might fall foul of the gambling laws could also bring trouble as the expected millions from ITV Play vanish like a mirage. If you are tempted to giggle at other people's misfortune, you should resist. Predicting ITV's downfall might be good sport but it is the last thing any of us really need.
With an advertising downturn already affecting everyone outside the BBC, a crisis of confidence could undermine the whole advertiser funding model for commercial television. If the rumours are true, the ITV chairman has an almighty task trying to find the right man to fill Charles Allen's shoes. A Stuart Rose or Justin King won't be easy to find in TV.
It cannot be that tempting for anyone with a decent job in the industry already. And when looking at those who don't have a decent job already, it might be wise to wonder why not.
Speech radio needs rival to BBC
It has never struck me as very sensible to pay too much attention to minor fluctuations in the RAJARs. Seasonal variations and the margin of error are too significant for small drops to be very worrying. So I wouldn't be overly concerned if I was Mark Damazer about the drop in Radio 4's numbers. But put together with talk radio station LBC's relative collapse, and the case must be stronger than ever for commercial radio to come together to mount some real public service rival programming to what's on the BBC. UK Radio Aid, when the commercial stations raised millions for victims of the tsunami, and UK Leaders Live, when the three main party leaders appeared on the same programme for the first time ever to face questions, showed that the BBC is not the only outfit that can do successful speech radio. Channel 4's plans will no doubt change the game in due course, but regardless of that it is surely time for the rest of commercial radio to do more to address the things people in Britain really care about. They shouldn't wait for disasters and elections to mount special programmes. They should do it every week, bringing their popular touch to big issues. I like music on the radio, but I also have a brain that needs stimulating and I'm sick of always having to tune to the BBC for that.
Krishnan Guru-Murthy is a presenter of Channel 4 'News'
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