Stronger than ever, or down in the doldrums? Opinion is divided about whether after its recent ratings performance ITV deserves applause or the last rites. This year, it has been out-scheduled and out-performed by the BBC. Yet ITV's network director, Marcus Plantin, who is responsible for a pounds 600m programme budget, insists that ITV is "buoyant, and doing well". Whether you believe him or the whisperers, one thing is for sure: expectations for the autumn schedule announced yesterday have never been higher.
Official viewing figures show a steady decline in ITV's share - from 39.5 per cent in the first three months of 1994, to 38 per cent in the same period a year later, to 36.5 per cent this year. All terrestrial channels are suffering audience loss as cable and satellite viewing grows, but BBC 1 is resisting this competition with more success than ITV. Last month, BBC 1 and ITV had the same audience share, 33.6 per cent - the first time this had happened other than at Christmas in almost four years.
This year has seen the launch of a number of high-profile shows lambasted by critics. The verdict on Chris Tarrant's Man O Man and The Shane Ritchie Experience? "Tacky", "tasteless" and "lowest common denominator TV". Yet the schedule has enjoyed successes with A Touch of Frost, Catherine Cookson and Taggart continuing to deliver audiences over 12 million. Coronation Street continues to beat EastEnders hands down. And Emmerdale is back in the Top 10. Even so, advertisers and their agencies are critical of ITV's failure to deliver the audiences they desire.
"Advertisers are worried about ITV's continued failure to dig into BBC's audience share," explains John Hooper, director-general of the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers. "The question is, what's the BBC doing right that ITV's not?"
Ask agencies, and the answer is clear: ITV is not reacting fast enough to outmanoeuvre the BBC. "ITV is at a disadvantage as it must publish schedule details earlier than the BBC to get in advertising. The BBC then looks at ITV and schedules aggressively against it," says Simon Cox, head of TV buying at CIA Medianetwork. "We want to see ITV scheduling more tactically and aggressively against BBC 1 - moving programmes around later. Undoubtedly, there are risks. But if [Marcus Plantin] can prove he moved something and it got a better audience - well, that's what he's there for.
Cox says that "severe lack of audience at the moment" is pushing up airtime prices, and that Saturday nights have been particularly poor. Competition is likely to heat up this autumn with the return of Casualty paired with National Lottery Live on BBC 1. "Earlier in the year, there was a desperate search for a mechanism to build ITV's Saturday night audience, but [Marcus Plantin] just didn't have the product."
Quick fixes may have bolstered audiences at certain times, but short- term solutions undermined confidence in the schedule, adds Alan James, director at The Network, the media operation run by Ogilvy & Mather. A re-run of old workhorses such as Dennis Norden's It'll Be Alright on the Night may still win ratings, but at what cost? "ITV cannot afford to rely on repeats - they mean nothing any more. Nor do one-off films. The big TV premiere is dead."
Adding insult to injury, LWT decided last month to drop out of the network schedule in an effort to reduce audience loss. Two weeks ago, it broadcast the locally-produced Crime File instead of the network offering - Is It Legal?, a sitcom penned by Men Behaving Badly's creator, Simon Nye. The London broadcaster vowed to do the same again when necessary, until the new season brings a refreshed weekend schedule. Agencies welcomed the move - LWT audiences had dipped to 20 to 30 per cent below last year's levels at times, they claimed. But Hooper adds a note of caution: "Advertisers will be concerned if network centre appears not to be satisfying even its own broadcasters."
Small wonder, then, if Plantin is pulling out the big guns this autumn. "Every schedule is important, but this one is more so than ever with negotiations underway for airtime sales for 1997 and the launch of Channel 5 just around the corner," he says. ITV's recent performance has been "patchy" rather than "lacklustre", he insists. "What's needed now is consistency - to build audiences across the whole schedule."
Central to the new season is drama. Adopting a similar tactic to last autumn, he is bringing back tried and tested formats for extended runs. "We make no apology for doing this," he says. "These are strong series which have consistently delivered over time." Programming like Heartbeat, London's Burning, Taggart and Soldier, Soldier. Also to return in one- off specials will be Cracker, Inspector Morse and Prime Suspect. These, along with a series of new single and short series dramas, will be packed into a new branded format: ITV Drama Premiere. New drama includes two costume epics, Emma and Moll Flanders, and Ain't Misbehavin', a vehicle for Soldier, Soldier stars Robson and Jerome. Also scheduled is Poldark, which had its TV debut held back last year when Plantin asked the producers to "fine tune" the programme to make it "hook the audience faster".
New series include a hospital drama (working title: Angels 2000) and Sharman, a spin-off from last year's successful pilot about a south London private eye, played by Clive Owen. These will run in an 8.30pm weeknight slot in an attempt to lock audiences in before BBC 1's Nine O'Clock News and hold them through to 10pm.
A key addition to the schedule will be the fourth weekly episode of Coronation Street, scheduled for Sunday evenings from mid-autumn. "We will work closely with the series' producers to synchronise storylines and plot climaxes to lead viewers from a Sunday night cliffhanger straight into Monday's episode." One-hour specials are promised for both Emmerdale and The Bill.
Plantin hopes to boost ITV's long-derided comedy track record with five series - he launched just two this time last year. These include Some Time Never (Plantin describes it as "risque") to run in a Sunday night 10pm slot to attract younger viewers. Is It Legal?, Faith in the Future and The Upper Hand will return and there will be a series of comedy one- offs. Entertainment "favourites" including Blind Date and Gladiators return to bolster Saturday nights and take on Noel's House Party, the lottery and Casualty on BBC 1. Neither Shane Ritchie nor Man O Man will return this autumn, although both are likely to come back next year. "It's very hard to expect premiere series to make an immediate breakthrough," Plantin says in their defence. Research and "fine tuning" will be applied to both in coming months.
Autumn sports coverage will be focused on the UEFA Championship League with matches broadcast live in prime-time. And for the new year: Formula 1.
"Events", be they movie premieres, exclusive sports or programme "specials" will replace previous movie-dominated strategies. "Although still popular, movies can't be guaranteed to always deliver any more," Plantin says. When ITV broadcast the terrestrial premiere of The Bodyguard, audiences were 12.5 million, yet A Few Good Men could only score 8.5 million.
Also in store - although for next year - are a string of high-profile acquisitions from the US, such as Millennium, from X-Files originator Chris Carter. ITV has acquired the series in a joint deal with Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB, along with others including The Practice, from the producer of LA Law, and Public Morals, a sit-com from NYPD Blue creator Steve Boccho.
Plantin's autumn offerings will please those who criticised him for allowing too little tactical flexibility into the schedule in recent months. And answering calls for more programme-specific marketing, he adds that programme promotions will be stepped up from next month on-air and when the next phase of M&C Saatchi's pounds 5m marketing initiative is unveiled.
But there remain areas in need of special attention - post-News at Ten, for example. "Channel 4 and Channel 5 will be especially busy in that area," he says. Sunday nights - "where the BBC has been adopting a 'double drama' strategy (running two back to back) - an old ITV trick". And afternoons, where a number of new formats are being tested. However, Plantin says: "Constant development is critical, we can't - and won't - take our eye off the ball."
Fighting talk. And in spite of the whisperers, the advertising industry is quietly confident. However, effectively selling its programmes to the viewer and communicating its achievements will be key. "I'm sure we'll see rabbits pulled out of the hat," Hooper says. "But at the end of the day, we live in a cold commercial world. Advertisers can only have one response to ITV claims: 'Prove it'."
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