Media: A flying start, but will they crash?: The new ITV companies have their rivals struggling for peak-time viewers, but William Phillips warns that soaps and old stars might not have lasting appeal

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ITV'S NEW operators - Carlton, Meridian, Westcountry and even GMTV - have certainly not suffered from the drop in popularity that traditionally accompanies franchise handovers. But the new line-up may be storing up grave dangers for the future, because it is relying on larger dollops of its big hits and lacks genuinely new stars. It is also lucky that BBC 1, currently running repeats of Citizen Smith, is in relatively poor shape.

A close study of the first fortnight of regular programming shows that ITV did offer a more populist schedule, as critics of the franchise auction feared. Its share of peak-time viewing (excluding satellite television) has jumped from 44 to 45.5 per cent, and together with Channel 4 it has grabbed 55 per cent of terrestrial viewing. If this keeps up, January will be commercial television's strongest start to a winter season since 1966, except for a couple of years in the mid-Eighties.

This is bad news for the BBC, and not so great for BSkyB. Since mid-1992 homes that pay for satellite channels have been using them less, although 50,000 to 100,000 new subscribers are signing up each month. ITV's most contentious downmarket move was a direct counter-attack on BSkyB: banishing Highway's hymns and Harry Secombe from Sunday evening to accommodate 'family films', such as last Sunday's Splash, and The Goonies next Sunday.

ITV resented Sky One's biggest hit, The Simpsons, grabbing a million or more viewers at 6.30pm. Swapping Sir Harry for Spielberg has tripled ITV's child audience at 6.30pm. Sky One retaliated with a full hour of The Simpsons from 6pm, but its ratings have dwindled a little.

ITV is streaking past the old enemy as well, swamping BBC 1's Sunday sitcoms As Time Goes By and So Haunt Me, and the comedy- drama Lovejoy. The weekly Friday episode of The Bill at 8pm is slaughtering BBC 1's latest 'people show', Marti Caine's Your Best Shot, and has forced Channel 4 to move Brookside to 8.30pm. Reports that Coronation Street may run five episodes a week must terrify BBC 1, which lacks a team captain until a controller is picked to replace Jonathan Powell.

Clearly the ousting of Thames as an ITV licensee will not bring about a notching-up of the BBC's audience share, as happened during franchise handovers in 1968 and 1982. Thames remains prominent as an independent producer, with hits such as Wish You Were Here . . . ? and This Is Your Life. The BBC is too demoralised by governmental nagging and Birtian surgery, too deficient in its former skills of razor-sharp scheduling, too imitative and tired in its light entertainment to unravel ITV's loopholes.

Yet from a similar malaise in 1983 to 1985, the BBC emerged with Michael Grade, EastEnders, Neighbours, Bread and a rapid upsurge of competitiveness.

The more one studies ITV's action in slow motion, the less sustainable its hot pace looks. Take its dependence on soaps. Stirring in more and more Coronation Street risks destroying the almost telepathic cohesion of the small cast and writing team that works this uniquely durable show's magic.

A warning is sounded by ITV's other prime-time soap, Emmerdale. Attempts to rejuvenate, smarten and sex it up are failing; it has drifted down the charts, giving fresh hope to BBC 1's Holiday and Top of the Pops, its veteran rivals at 7pm. In 1985 ITV swamped evening schedules with soaps and the public overdosed, rejecting The Practice and Albion Market and setting Crossroads on a downward spiral towards extinction.

Ominously, Marcus Plantin, ITV's new network scheduler, specialised in the people shows and 'embarrassment' television that are now flagging as they become more contrived. LWT's Blind Date, Beadle's About and Barrymore have weakened, handing BBC 1 the advantage on Saturday night - its traditional platform for ratings comebacks. In the absence of star performers who could command a majority audience, people shows tempted ITV to neglect the cultivation of crowd-pleasing talent during the decade of new wave comedians and faceless rap bands.

That problem bothers the BBC, too, but it is underpinned by continuing public respect for its heritage (Dad's Army draws 10 million viewers in its umpteenth rerun) and its national stature. Last month's Gulf hostilities again prompted a shift to BBC news bulletins. The Green Paper on the corporation from the Department of National Heritage grudgingly acknowledges the need for a large public sector in television.

As with the miners, train drivers and postmen, the idea of privatising BBC broadcasters still seems faintly indecent. So in the Nineties the BBC could be resting on an inflation-proofed income while ITV faces heavier Treasury cash calls and a loss of advertising revenues to a gradually separated Channel 4, BSkyB, and maybe Channel 5. ITV must decide whether to concentrate on the young C1 and C2 families who fuelled its Eighties prosperity, or to follow the population drift towards older, lonelier, choosier consumers.

A few years ago ITV dropped wrestling because it was too proletarian. Now it screens American wrestling exhibitions and lacklustre boxing every Saturday. It pumps up late-night ratings with Carlton's Good Sex Guide, whose first episode took 9 million viewers; yet it snips movies prudishly and plays Carlton's featherweight drama Head Over Heels after the 9pm watershed. It revives ancient quizzes, such as Take Your Pick and Celebrity Squares, and dumps LA Law, the Hollywood yuppie drama.

Yet it continues to run far more current affairs, news and documentaries in the peaks than most of the world's commercial channels. It is hard to see this quota falling below a quarter of prime-time hours, compared with a historical average of one-third.

American networks have faced cost and revenue pressures resembling ITV's for 10 years. They are filling more and more peak time with news-based series, because they cost less and attract a classy clientele for advertisers. Mr Plantin cannot ignore figures such as 11.7 million for The Cook Report on 12 January, or 12.5 million last August for Yorkshire's beautifully tactful documentary about an Irish couple's Siamese twins.

ITV's new licensees already feel the class-or-mass dilemma. GMTV is an uneasy clone of US stations' breakfast programmes, with pastel presenters. Its maximum audience during the week to 17 January was 1.8 million, 700,000 below TV-am a year ago. Channel 4's amiably silly, utterly British Big Breakfast has streaked from nowhere to 1.1 million in three months by enjoying itself without fretting about sexual chemistry.

In the posh South of England, Meridian has conserved the audience of Coast to Coast, TVS's highly successful news magazine, by stressing thoughtful reporting close to the ground in three sub- regions; but Westcountry Live has suffered a slump from TSW's Today South West a year ago, with viewers complaining of folksy amateurishness.

The West of England is ITV's stoniest ground, full of retired, well-off, conservative people. They represent Britain's quieter, greyer future, and must be catered for as much as those who live in working-class homes with Astra dishes and bailiffs banging on the door. ITV has hit the ground running in its new era - but maybe not quite fast enough to escape the fissures opening beneath its feet as viewers' tastes diverge.

(Photographs omitted)