The Big Question: Will ITV survive, or is it just a remnant of the analogue past?

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The Independent Online

Is there a crisis at ITV?

The only person who might disagree with such a notion is the network's chief executive, Charles Allen, who is expected to announce his departure next week. For the past two years he has been determinedly resisting an increasingly urgent clamour for his resignation while what was once Britain's most popular broadcaster crumbles about him. Yet his position is no longer tenable after ITV's share of the national television audience reportedly fell to below 17 per cent last month (July), its worst ever showing. Advertising sales for September are expected to be down by up to 12 per cent. The ITV share price has fallen to below £1 for the first time, and only recovered to £1.03 this week at news that Allen might finally be about to leave.

Should we care if it's consigned to the dustbin?

While it is true that the age of multi-channel television now offers viewers a staggering choice of 500 stations, ITV - 50 years old last year - is part of the fabric of modern British society. Despite its dependency on advertising revenue, it is a public service broadcaster, responsible for such landmark programming as The World at War, World in Action, The South Bank Show, Brideshead Revisited, Spitting Image, Crackerand Coronation Street.

Is it Charles Allen's fault?

ITV's problems have stemmed from poor programming. Successive flops have led in turn to a haemorrhage of viewers and a succession of high-profile staff departures. ITV1's identity has become increasingly indistinct from that of the wider multi-channel landscape and lacking relevance to younger viewers. Allen also negotiated a costly renewal agreement with advertisers, which means that advertising revenues are dependent on audiences. Fidelity, ITV's largest shareholder, may already be regretting that a takeover led by Greg Dyke, former head of the BBC, was not taken up, as it offered £1.30 a share.

Is anyone else to blame?

In an organisation of this size certainly there are others who are culpable for its demise. Questions are now being asked about the role of ITV's chairman, Sir Peter Burt, the former governor of Bank of Scotland, who has consistently given his backing to Allen. Then there is Simon Shaps, ITV's new director of television. He is only nine months into the job, but the spectacular failure of It's Now or Never (which attracted a Saturday night audience of just 1.7m and was almost instantly axed) raised question marks about Shaps's judgement. He also made the flawed decision to take on C4 with Love Island, though he has enjoyed greater success with hits such as Wild at Heart and Lewis.

Are there any positives for Allen?

Perhaps his greatest achievement was to negotiate with the regulator, Ofcom, a £135m annual saving in ITV's licence fee payments, which for a while enhanced his credibility with the City. His strategy of building a family of digital channels has clearly been a success, and ITV2 has become one of the most popular multi-channel entertainment brands, though it has had a tough 2006 so far. ITV3 has benefited from re-running the original dramas, which Allen has made a (costly) feature of ITV1. His era has also produced some phenomenal hit shows, including Pop Idol and I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here! ITV News has delivered a succession of scoops in the last two years, but nonetheless Allen took the decision to close down the 24-hour ITV News Channel.

What's happened to the audience?

The television market is tougher than ever with the growing availability of more and more digital channels. But the disintegration of the ITV1 audience was not inevitable. The ratings of BBC1, the traditional rival, have shrunk at a far slower rate, partly thanks to the smart introduction of programming with cross-generational appeal, such as Strictly Come Dancing and Dr Who. Channel 4 has been even more resilient in the multi-channel world, growing its audience share to 11.4 per cent last month, putting ITV1 within its sights, a scenario that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. C4's Big Brother might be loathed in some quarters but it has consistently trounced ITV1's Love Island, which was intended to snatch back a share of the key 16-34 demographic. For ITV, an enduring dilemma has been how to appeal to key niche sectors of the viewing public without abandoning the broad-based appeal on which it has traditionally sold itself.

What do the advertisers think?

The 16-34 age bracket, especially the ABC1 part thereof, is the prime target of advertisers. The trouble with ITV1 is that its audience is, to put it bluntly, largely old and downmarket. But though Coronation Street now only offers audiences of 7-8 million, advertisers still look to ITV to provide the connection with the masses so important to product launches. The industry recently appointed the advertising supremo Tess Alps to try and restore confidence in television advertising, which is under threat from the growth of the internet.

How can ITV survive?

Even after the analogue signal is switched off in 2012, ITV must have a future. Even in these troubled times it still delivers an audience that matches the combined viewing of its five biggest commercial rivals. Headhunters are already said to be lining up Allen's successor, with Stephen Carter, who has just stepped down as chief executive of Ofcom, being tipped as favourite for the job.

Whether Carter could be ITV's saviour is a moot point. Rival broadcasters would probably challenge his appointment, he has no track record of running a television company, and had a troubled time as head of NTL. Carter's successor at Ofcom could help to preserve ITV by cutting it further slack so that it can retain a distinct identity by continuing to produce arts, religious and children's programmes. Whoever gets Allen's job will have to act fast - the analogue era will begin to come to an end with switch-off in the Border region in just two years' time.

Can ITV recover?

Yes...

* If it rediscovers the magic formula for delivering mass-appeal programming that make it distinct from other commercial channels

* When the appointment of a new chief executive, perhaps following a private equity buy-out, leads to a fresh approach in content

* By convincing the advertising industry that it has a mutual interest in restoring ITV to its former glories

No...

* If ITV fails to give its flagship channel an identity distinct from the hundreds of rivals it faces in the multi-channel landscape

* If it continues to play second best to its commercial rival Channel 4 in developing inspired programme ideas

* If it fails to turn its acquisition of Friends United into an effective strategy for meeting the challenges of internet broadcasting

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