Summer of failures leaves ITV struggling for vision and viewers

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The Independent Online

When David Liddiment, the man in charge of ITV's programming, gave the prestigious MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival last month, he made a well-crafted assault on the BBC, its depressing obsession with ratings, and the downmarket drift of some of the corporation's programming.

It was a skilful manoeuvre by Mr Liddiment, particularly for the way ITV used an important speech to steer public debate on to the state of the BBC. As Mark Thompson, the BBC director of television, muttered afterwards: "Where was his vision for ITV?"

That may not have been something the affable Mr Liddiment wanted to shout about. The vision for ITV is currently not a happy one. Tomorrow industry leaders gather in Cambridge for yet another conference. An announcement by Tessa Jowell, the Culture, Media and Sport Secretary, approving two new BBC digital channels will be the official focus for debate, but the increasingly parlous state of the commercial broadcaster will be the talking point in the bars of the colleges where delegates are staying.

They will not be short of evidence. Throughout the summer, ITV has been beset by casualties. This week, ITV was humiliated when the BBC's flagship soap EastEnders won five prizes at the TV Quick Awards on Monday, including that for Best Soap, while the cast and crew of Coronation Street went home empty-handed.

The network has signally failed to sustain the ratings success of This Morning, its daytime magazine programme, after the defection of the show's long-standing presenters, Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan, to Channel 4. ITV thought that having the show presented by the Sixties model Twiggy and a singer, Colleen Nolan, of the Nolan Sisters, might prove a novelty. Some 700,000 viewers disagree and have abandoned the show since its debut last week. In its heyday, Richard and Judy attracted more than three million viewers; now the audience is down to 800,000.

And ITV's multimillion-pound football highlights programme, The Premiership, was branded a turkey after ratings slumped to 3.1 million in its second week, ITV's worst Saturday night audience for five years. Executives are continuing to support the show, fronted by the former BBC presenter and housewives' favourite, Des Lynam, particularly since it bounced back somewhat with 4.2 million viewers last Saturday. But it was still beaten by BBC1's game show Dog Eat Dog, hosted by Ulrika Jonsson, which got 5.5 million. And The Premiership's Saturday evening slot meant that a real ratings winner, Blind Date, had to be moved.

ITV Digital, the channel's pay TV platform, continues to lag behind market leader Sky Digital in the race for subscribers. The company suffered great embarrassment earlier this year when a leaked letter to Downing Street from Granada, one of ITV's main shareholders, suggested the company was under pressure to sell the loss-making business.

Predictions that its summer reality show, Survivor, would attract in excess of 10 million viewers made the channel look ridiculous when viewers turned off in droves and the channel was forced to reduce scheduling from four episodes a week to one. Hype was also ineffective for the return of the daytime soap Crossroads. It has been cut from from five episodes to four after disappointing viewing figures.

And, worst of all for ITV in its desire to keep the advertisers happy, its audience share is down from 29.7 per cent in 2000 to 27.9 per cent so far this year. It could be worse: and it is on ITV2, which barely makes a blip on the graph with a a 0.1 per cent audience share. In Edinburgh, one of Mr Liddiment's few moments of analysis of his own channel, (or channels as his title director of channels takes in ITV2, another problem area still to gain a meaningful national profile) acknowledged he had problems. He said: "We're in pre-legislation limbo, competition is cut-throat and ITV is going through its most serious revenue downturn for a decade."

But as the report of the speech in the trade journal Broadcast noted: "He offered no solutions to ITV's diminishing audience share or any insight into how the network intends to claw back viewers from multi-channel TV."

Within the industry, even allowing for the non-objectivity of rival players, concerns over ITV decline are growing. Adam Pace, group head at the media-buying company Optimedia, says: "ITV is no longer viewed by car and financial services advertisers as a natural fit. They will just as readily consider Channel 4 now and that's what ITV needs to claw back. In the past couple of years it has struggled to attract the younger viewers that advertisers crave."

Pace says failure is not an option for The Premiership, for which ITV can charge up to £50,000 for a 30-second ad. "It has to work because of the money they have invested, for their own public relations and for the sake of the sponsorship deal," Mr Pace said. "ITV may well find that the deal will be renegotiated by [sponsors] Coca-Cola if the programme does not attract the broader audience it promised."

ITV executives predict advertising revenue could be down 15 per cent next month, and bookings for November look still bleaker. City analysts who follow the fortunes of Carlton Communications and Granada, ITV's two main shareholders, have predicted a fall in advertising revenues of 8 to 9 per cent for the year.

Adam Singer, chief executive of cable operator Telewest, says that Carlton and Granada should scrap their ITV Digital platform and invest more money in programming. ITV's programming budget for 2001 is £747m. ITV Digital is expected to lose Carlton and Granada £1.1bn before the projected break-even date of 2004.