GMTV wins reprieve after improvement in services: Better news coverage helps station described by watchdog as 'poor' escape fine. Rhys Williams reports

GMTV has avoided a possible pounds 2m fine and the shortening of its 10- year broadcasting licence after the Independent Television Commission found yesterday that it had made a 'demonstrable improvement' in its services.

Last May, the ITC issued a formal warning after declaring the national breakfast station's first- year performance had been 'poor' and 'unsatisfactory'. But yesterday the commission said: 'The members have concluded that there have been sufficient improvements and have decided that they will not impose a sanction.'

GMTV faced stern censure over shortfalls in the amounts of news, current affairs and children's information promised in the licence application. The commission said that after 'detailed monitoring of the service', GMTV was now fulfilling its licence requirements for news and current affairs.

However, it still had to produce further evidence of sustained quality in its children's programmes. 'The ITC will continue to monitor the quality of the output and collate data on transmissions for the full review of GMTV's performance in 1994 which will be published early next year.'

The introduction in February of the early morning weekday News Hour, produced by Reuters, had strengthened GMTV's news, current affairs and sports coverage, while the Sunday Best programme had changed format to include significantly more current affairs output.

The ITC's original attack focused on the station's early days at the beginning of 1993. The arrival of the highly successful Big Breakfast on Channel 4 the previous September had always meant that GMTV would never enjoy the ratings dominance of its predecessor TV-am (the rival show was claiming around 1 million viewers a day by the end of 1992). Within weeks of GMTV going on air, the situation worsened with the debacle over the lead anchor Fiona Armstrong and her 'F-for fanciability factor'.

The quest for some form of on- air chemistry between the presenters led to the introduction of Eamonn Holmes a month later to replace Michael Wilson, a former Sky News reader.

The episode culminated in the premature departure less than two months later of both Ms Armstrong and Lis Howell, the station's director of programmes. Fortunes revived during the year with the introduction of features such as popular workout instructor, Mr Motivator.

GMTV's audience share hit a low of 33 per cent in August last year but by the beginning of this month had climbed back to 43 per cent (close to the 47 per cent it had inherited from TV-am). Its average daily viewing figures have climbed to around 1.3 million, 300,000 up on the same period last year, while the Big Breakfast has fallen back 200,000 to 600,000. Power Rangers and Saturday Disney helped the station claim seven out of the top 10 rating children's programmes in the summer.

Christopher Stoddart, the station's managing director, welcomed the ITC's review, saying that it had 'recognised the quality of the changes which we have continued to make since the beginning of 1994'.

The ITC agreed in February to give GMTV greater flexibility in the specified minimum amounts of factual programmes, reflecting the rolling nature of the breakfast programme format. However, the licence requires, per week, a total of 19 hours 26 minutes of news, factual programming, education, religion, children's information and entertainment and sport.

(Photograph omitted)