Has ITV got the talent at last?

Things are looking up for the broadcaster with new chief Adam Crozier taking over as the advertising market rallies. Nick Clark reports

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:02

There will be no great fanfare to greet Adam Crozier when he walks into ITV's London headquarters on Monday for his first day as chief executive.

He will not address staff, or be glad-handed by a welcoming committee of board members, instead "there will be action from the minute he gets here," according to insiders.

There are plenty of challenges waiting in his in-tray. Yet former colleagues say that Mr Crozier has never shied away from a challenge. Upon his appointment, the new ITV chairman Archie Norman, backed the former Royal Mail and Football Association head as a "quiet personality with a steely resolve". He may have an even more valuable commodity: luck. Alex de Groote, analyst at Panmure Gordon, said: "There is an element of fortune for Crozier as the share price has rallied on the back of the advertising market bounce, ITV's main revenue driver."

Mr Norman had already presided over a positive set of annual results last month, as ITV swung from a £2.7bn loss in 2008 to £25m profit last year. It was helped by a severe cost-cutting drive, improved performance as well as the improvement in the ad market.

TV advertising has surged so far this year, outstripping all market expectations, and ITV expects revenues to rise 20 per cent year on year in April. Advertisers are expected to bring spending forward to the first half, with ITV especially set to benefit from Britain's Got Talent, and the World Cup. The research firm Screen Digest predicts revenues will rise this year to £1.4bn from £1.3bn in 2009, although ITV management is cautious about the prospects for the second half.

"Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good," Mr de Groote said. "And Adam Crozier is lucky." Not only has advertising bounced back, along with the TV market, but ITV's management will have further room for manoeuvre after a court ordered Sky to slash its 17.8 per cent holding in the company in January. Mr de Groote said: "This removes an overhang on the register and liberates the board. ITV has gone from staring into the abyss, to looking in pretty good shape." The shares have tripled since hitting a low point one year ago, and the company, which has the same market cap as British Airways, is in FTSE 100 territory again. "That's phoenix from the flames stuff," he said, adding: "The management turnaround story is relevant, but in a sense there's less urgency now for change than there was."

Mr Norman has already set the ball rolling, launching a root and branch review of the broadcaster in February. While Mr Crozier has been on holiday for the past few weeks, after leaving the Post Office, he has been kept up to date with the review's findings so far.

March 3 was labelled "day zero" of the overhaul, and Mr Norman said he was not interested in short-term thinking, saying "instant change is no change," adding that the management was drawing up a five-year plan.

Tamsin Garrity, an analyst at UBS, said the group was unlikely to announce the findings of its review, as well as its investment plans, until the interim results in August. "We estimate that the strategic review will lead to reinvestment of £50m... We believe the investment will be focused in programming, ITV Studios and the online offering," she said.

One industry source contrasted it to former executive director Michael Grade's grand unveiling of his plans on a strategy day in September 2007: "It is unlikely the new management team will be looking to pull a rabbit out of the hat." Mr Crozier and Mr Norman plan to tackle the main pillars of the company's culture, as well as implementation and delivery. "Archie's criticism is that ITV has not been doing the small things right. Rather than an overhaul, it is about fixing those," the source said.

Archie Norman recently raised the issue of pay TV. He said that pay TV, subscriptions or a paywall may be a good idea to raise revenue as "it is a more stable platform". While ITV1 is likely to stay free anyway, he admitted that none of its digital channels are robust enough to be put on a pay platform. "We would need a very different product than we have at this time," Mr Norman said.

One of the key business decisions is about the shift to online. While ITV.com views grew from 85 million in 2008 to 215 million last year, Mr Norman was clear that the service was not big enough. So far broadcasters have also struggled to effectively monetise online operations, and Mr Norman considers its on demand service as currently subscale. It will look to grow through Project Canvas, the venture with rivals such as the BBC and Channel 4, which is looking to bring online video on demand to the living room. It could also look to content deals with SeeSaw, YouTube or Hulu, although so far all talks with Hulu have stuttered over who sells the advertising.

Another of the crucial issues for the management is the future of ITV Studios, the production business. They have in effect ruled out a sale of the division that makes Emmerdale, as the company believes that owning content will become increasingly important. They pointed to the success of Britain's Got Talent, which they were not able to sell elsewhere as they did not hold the rights. "Rebuilding ITV Studios will be a focus," one source said.

Before the market rebounded there were fears ITV would be pushed to the brink of tapping shareholders for cash, to avoid problems with its debts pile. Now, Mr de Groote, suggested, the management could tap investors to reduce debt. "It has a little too much debt, and the market may be more receptive now."

Where Mr Crozier is unlikely to be lucky is with the regulators. The final decision on the Contracts Rights Renewal that governs the broadcaster's ad sales will be announced next week, and the signs are not good. More promising is Ofcom considering whether to relax its rules on the amount of airtime the public service broadcasters have to sell. Yet, Mr Norman said it was important "we don't depend on regulatory change".

Mr de Groote believes the future looks bright, and there will be moves to expand before long: "You don't get Crozier and Norman if you're not expansionist. They are not a pair of shrinking violets. Change may not happen immediately, but there will probably be movement in the next 18 months. With the cost cutting, the inside is done, the company will be looking outside ... Consolidation is being talked about."

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