More than 10 million viewers tuned in for the conclusion of ITV’s hit drama Downton Abbey last December, making it the clear ratings winner over Christmas. However, with figures for other flagship shows such as The X Factor taking a dive, the channel will have its work cut out to attract new viewers in 2016.
But ITV is far from sinking. Despite a 4% drop in viewing figures during the first half of last year, pre-tax profit was up by 25%, and with a raft of new content in the pipeline group marketing director Rufus Radcliffe is confident both viewers and advertisers will switch on to “a year based on premium drama”.
The cast of Cold Feet reunited for the first time in 13 years ahead of the show’s highly anticipated comeback this spring; former Doctor Who actress Jenna Coleman is set to play a young Queen Victoria in a major new series about the monarch; and new crime drama Marcella, scripted by the writer of Scandinavian series The Bridge and starring Anna Friel and Downton Abbey’s Laura Carmichael, is already creating a buzz.
“If your master brand doesn’t stand for anything, you’re going to come unstuck“
Rufus Radcliffe, ITV
Sport will also be a big focus in 2016. ITV is showing the Six Nations rugby for the first time and will be splitting coverage of the UEFA Euro 2016 football tournament with the BBC, which Radcliffe says is “a great weapon to have in our armoury”. It is particularly relevant as ITV’s coverage of the Rugby World Cup helped improve its share of viewing in the second half of 2015.
A brand, not a broadcaster
The ITV group underwent a huge shift three years ago when Radcliffe joined the business. He made the strategic decision that ITV should behave less like a broadcaster and “more like a brand” when communicating with viewers.
“When I arrived at ITV, all of the research showed that people love our shows, but we weren’t getting the attribution back to the brand that broadcast and produced them,” he says. “Long-term, that would be a problem so we were focused on establishing a brand.”
He adds: “There are over 500 TV channels and that’s without counting exclusively on-demand businesses. If your master brand doesn’t stand for anything, you’re going to come unstuck.”
Constructing ITV’s brand foundations has also allowed it to diversify. In 2014, the business launched two new channels for the first time in over a decade: ITVBe is dedicated to lifestyle and entertainment, while ITV Encore is geared towards scripted drama.
He says: “Everything changes, every year. There’s insatiable demand from viewers for new and exciting content, which we’ll respond to while at the same time building our brand, both online and offline. We ultimately need to make sure we allow viewers to spend more time with ITV across everything that we do.”
The brand’s most recent project was the launch of on-demand service ITV Hub, as Radcliffe admits its previous incarnation ITV Player “was not cutting through” to audiences.
“We want to be as good in the demand space as we’re in the linear and live space, so we felt that launching ITV Hub and putting ourselves fully behind it for the first time from a marketing point of view would be a real statement of intent,” he says.
Radcliffe has big plans for the digital platform and will this year be testing what viewers want, and what does and does not work. “That’s a really exciting opportunity,” he adds.
Although Radcliffe recognises that people watch television in different ways, he is not worried about digital diminishing the power of TV.
“There are lots of stories saying there’s a behavioural change happening, but the data doesn’t back that up,” he explains. “In terms of TV viewing, 88% is still done live, which suggests to us that live TV plays an important role in viewers’ lives. But obviously we want to be in the digital space as well. It’s about balancing the now and the next and getting it right.”
Ironically, while some suggest digital platforms are responsible for distracting consumers and diverting their attention away from TV, Radcliffe claims that social media is providing new opportunities to lure viewers back to watching linear broadcasts. “On average, 40% of all Twitter traffic in the evening is related to TV, so we think that Twitter and TV co-exist well,” he says. “We’re the biggest terrestrial channel on Twitter as we have over 1.5 million followers. We find Twitter is great at driving people to watch live TV [because if they are on Twitter and not watching TV it becomes] one big spoiler alert.”
Keeping in tune with culture
ITV is also keen to reap the benefits of digital when doing audience research. Radcliffe says: “The great thing about TV is that it isn’t difficult to get a viewpoint on how you are doing. People will always have an opinion.”
Consequently, ITV does a lot of panel research and works closely with YouGov to test new programme ideas and measure audience responses.
He says: “The rise in digital opens up fantastic opportunities, which means we get an immediate overnight response on the programming that we’re doing. It allows us to be plugged in with viewer tastes and what they want.”
As the competitive nature of the media landscape increases, Radcliffe says the amount of audience research ITV does will only grow.
“With regard to the role of the ITV brand, we’re in the middle of mainstream British culture and that’s where we want to stay. But it’s a difficult place to be, which is why understanding your audience is important,” he says.