Nicholas Jones: Archie Norman must be a brave man to take on ITV

Digital technology offers tremendous potential to reduce the cost of editing
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The Independent Online

As ITV pipes Archie Norman aboard to be its new chairman today, we deck-hands in television are acutely aware just what a daunting task he faces in rejuvenating the broadcaster. The headline figures make for grim reading. Since 1990 ITV has lost nearly half its audience share. ITV1, its flagship, now wins barely a fifth of our viewing time.

The press will focus on Mr Norman's quest for a new ITV chief executive but his real challenge is far greater.

For his company to prosper, he must secure the audience of the future. That means acquiring the interest of people like my 11-year-old daughter. Her viewing habits, like those of a rapidly growing number of children, should worry our broadcasters – but cause particular alarm at ITV.

Our daughter now finds her PC plus its broadband far more fun than the telly. And when her friends come round, it's striking how they, too, prefer to play on the computer with her rather than watch TV. Many will say my sample is far too small to matter. I doubt it, for other parents tell me they have noticed the internet's greater pulling power for children – and given my job, I like kids to watch telly, unlike some dads.

Clearly, for a rapidly growing number of children, viewing is now a question of choosing screens rather than channels. It's either the PC or the TV, not BBC or ITV or Sky. It's easy to see why our daughter chooses the computer first. It offers a world of real choices, such as websites, music, DVD playback, email and chat, TV itself (on demand), Sims 2 and computer games with imagery better than many TV shows. It's a world of novelty, engagement and interactivity where, by contrast, television is inert and familiar.

I sometimes wonder how many people working in television realise this. Few producers seem either to have heard of the hugely popular Sims 2 or to grasp the enormous destructive power of the internet to devastate traditional media. There's little time left to find out, for British Telecom recently announced plans to unroll a 100mb broadband network for 2012.

At ITV, Mr Norman must somehow anticipate the way in which ever-faster broadband will, over the coming decade, create in vast numbers a new type of fickle, fleeting viewer – and give them what they want.

You may reasonably think, isn't he merely facing the same problems as any other broadcaster? I'm afraid not: the challenges are especially daunting for ITV. Firstly, consider the technology. The internet is but one element of the digital revolution. The more familiar part, multi-channel TV, is a particular threat to ITV. Homes with it watch less ITV programming than those without. The forthcoming analogue switch-off can therefore only take ITV's audience even lower. As for the internet itself, ITV has more often got it wrong than right – witness the Friends Reunited debacle. More worrying is the way just cannot build the critical mass of its BBC rival.

Secondly, ITV's programming is not as mighty as it seems. ITV1 relies dangerously on very few titles – principally soaps, or formats with Ant and Dec or Simon Cowell. On ITV 2, viewers will tire of What Katie Did Next. ITV3 is largely a reminder of what used to be. Pacing the deck, Mr Norman is entitled to ask his lieutenants why ITV just does not screen hits in the vein of Vicar of Dibley or Top Gear.

The reason is that ITV is now largely an entertainment channel with little to attract the more upmarket audiences who regularly watched it 20 years ago. Its viewers are ageing. In one summer week this year, ITV1 had an audience share of just 11 per cent among 16-34 year olds, a key demographic for advertisers. Even at 11, my daughter senses it is not a channel for her, with soaps that lack the sparkle of E4's dramas.

She does, of course, watch Mr Cowell's shows. However, she knows they are forever there and she's likely simply to watch the choice bits on YouTube, having first read the headlines they generated in (online) newspapers.

It's easy to criticise: what would I do in Mr Norman's place? Here are some suggestions. The average producer will shout me down, but many TV production budgets can be slashed using competitive bids instead of the set tariffs each type of production is deemed to cost. Digital technology now offers tremendous potential, both to reduce the huge cost of editing – and to shoot a new kind of low-cost drama and comedy using the best lessons of the US independent film-making sector.

In this way, ITV can start to craft a more edgy, fresher kind of programming that will draw young viewers in the next decade, such as my daughter.

Ironically, she did once watch ITV1 without fail, in order to catch My Parents Are Aliens. Sadly, this wonderful programme was axed – but her PC was waiting.

The writer is creative director of Quanta Films