Drama is television's costliest output. Implicitly ITV pointed out that starveling satellite and cable services were recycling old shows or producing cheap chat. However, the first five weeks' figures for this autumn reveal that viewers are peeling off and ITV has to spend its way out of trouble.
In September ITV took 42.7 per cent of the four terrestrial channels' audience. Only in 1988 did it fare worse in what is normally its most competitive month.
Prime time is not an urgent problem: the middlebrow drama that ITV emphasises in its sales pitches, such as Soldier Soldier and London's Burning, has locked up 44-46 per cent of terrestrial viewing after 6pm for two years. ITV's weakness lies before 6pm, at times when ITV regions go their own way: the weekday afternoons and above all Saturday and Sunday afternoons, a wilderness inhabited by American stuntmen exhibitions, ancient movies and obscure sports.
Alan Yentob's BBC 1 has achieved a few more prime- time popular hits than normal this autumn, such as the softened version of 999 (subtitled Lifesavers) and the dustmen drama, Common as Muck. The failure of scrambled subscription services such as BBC Select has freed late hours: BBC 1 frequently stays on air until 2am, harrying ITV's night- 5time programming (also cheap, weak and regionalised) with old films.
ITV'S daytime headache is seven years old. Since BBC 1 imported Neighbours in 1986, ITV's audience share has slipped from more than 50 to less than 40 per cent. Lately, however, BBC 2 and Channel 4 have bothered it most. Their combined share has all but doubled to almost 30 per cent with offerings such as Channel 4's Oprah Winfrey and BBC 2's sports and documentaries.
Now the small fry, sniffing blood, are trying harder than ever, especially BBC 2. It has hijacked Oprah and is about to launch a teatime chat show with Esther Rantzen. The little networks compete on much more level terms in relatively low-budget daytime.
Why has ITV allowed its lead at these times to be nibbled away for so long?
Probably it realises it can no longer afford to fortify all bases. Afternoon viewers tend to be retired folk, non-working women, invalids and insomniac shift workers, not the advertisers' most prized targets. The bland material available from America and suitable for daytime means new channels are also chasing this market segment.
In contrast, only top dogs can afford copious 'quality' drama, which in ITV parlance means anything on film with more than six in the cast.
The 1995 schedule paraded by the Network Centre's Marcus Plantin appears formidable. ITV now has three year-round soaps and 12 or 15 limited-run drama series, which should keep it chugging along for some time.
This autumn ITV is relying almost totally on new runs of these favourites.
The trouble with this safety-first policy is that most drama series wear out their welcome quite quickly.
ITV has always recommissioned three out of five of its prime-time dramas after their first runs. A few, mostly involving detectives, go on for ever, such as Taggart, ended only by the star's death, and Poirot. But most series lose appeal on their second runs, and the few that survive longer seldom build on early success.
The Network Centre has defied precedent by reordering several series that have indifferent audiences: Moving Story, The 10 ers, Rik Mayall Presents and Frank Stubbs. Plantin is tempting fate further by buying extended runs of some series: 15-17 episodes instead of eight or 10. The danger is that too many one-time hits will give up the ghost simultaneously, leaving ITV's prime-time vulnerable.
Preserving old shows for too long brought BBC 1 down, after its peak-hours surge in the mid-Eighties under Michael Grade. Now one senses a spring in the corporation's step, with former ITV people such as Charles Denton and Nick Elliott in drama and David Liddiment in light entertainment.
At BBC Television Centre the pain of producer choice is being supplanted by the benison of more money for peaktime programming, and a determination that ITV should no longer be the exclusive purveyor of meaty storytelling.
Seaforth, BBC 1's 10-part Sunday- night saga, symbolises the fresh approach.
For the moment ITV comfortably leads the field in prime time. Yet the Network Centre's fixation on the priciest kind of entertainment - mostly about British police and emergency services and thus possessing little export potential - is fraught with risks.
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