THE BOTTOM LINE; SUMMER SHOWS SIGNS OF ITV'S AUTUMN

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The Independent Online
The spring/summer schedule of ITV will be launched tomorrow, amid rising doubts about ability to compete in the new multi-channel environment. Its harshest critics believe its management is lumbered with a defeatist outlook and is simply milking cash and managing decline.

In the first seven weeks of this year ITV's share of viewing fell to 34 per cent from 37 per cent in the same period last year. The decline disturbs media buyers, the hard-nosed number crunchers who buy slots for commercials for ad agencies.

Their exasperation with Britain's biggest commercial channel is given full vent in the latest quarterly report on television from Zenith Media, the UK's biggest media buyer.

"ITV has slept through the alarm clocks of a revitalised BBC and a seriously commercial Channel 4," it laments. "We don't expect ITV to turn back the clock and make it the Seventies again, but it would be nice if it did something. It may have lost its 100 per cent monopoly of TV advertiser money, but it still has nearly 70 per cent and a big responsibility to its customers."

The authors of this scathing analysis have seen the spring/summer schedule. The good news for ITV is that they are not scathing about everything. Drama for the coming season "looks OK".

Fresh offerings will include The Grand (set in a 1920s Manchester hotel) and Wokenwell (a five-week comedy drama played out in a northern village).

Also new for the summer will be series of Bodyguards (about minders) and Bliss (four 90-minute medical/academic dramas about a Cambridge-based immunologist). Both piloted well.

Zenith is also encouraged by what it deems some sensible US imports: the proven Sabrina, Clueless, Early Edition and Millennium, which revolves around an undercover FBI group with supernatural powers, the first season of which has been on Sky. Zenith considers that a slight handicap. It is also unimpressed by "the usual wodge of repeats" by ITV (namely re- runs of Morse, Cookson and Taggart) a tired trio which, it fears, "will encourage ITV's most valuable viewers to shop elsewhere".

Those viewers most valuable to ITV include affluent males, who often elude advertisers because of they tend to watch little television. Media buyers are pleased that ITV has captured Formula One motor racing from the Beeb which, it enthuses, "will provide advertisers with rich men and a rich environment".

But it is less sanguine about some of the light entertainment shows which are, it says, testing ITV's touching faith in longevity to the destruction. It will not be at all surprised if the new series of Surprise, Surprise, which trailed three million behind Antiques Roadshow last time round, gets severely injured by the BBC's hospital drama Casualty.

The first series of Beadle's Hot Shots came off badly against this incredibly popular drama, which pulls in audiences of more than 17 million (more than any of the soaps). Beadle struggled to get six million. But, for some unfathomable reason, he will be inflicting a further six episodes of camcorder snippets on the nation.

Barrymore is also back, despite the fact that his star too is on the wane. The last series in 1996 did nine million, down from 12 million in 1994 and 11 million in 1995. Zenith warns waspishly: "Michael Barrymore drinks at the last chance saloon with Barrymore."

And, if you agree with Zenith's overall analysis, ITV's network director, Marcus Plantin, must be propping up the bar with him.

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