ITV’s refusal to advertise the Mirror Group’s Big Break game-card promotion has caused a storm of controversy, especially in the light of its decision to run ads for a similar initiative for The Sunday Times. But is ITV churlishly exercising p

SBHD: ITV’s refusal to advertise the Mirror Group’s Big Break game-card promotion has caused a storm of controversy, especially in the light of its decision to run ads for a similar initiative for The Sunday Times. But is ITV churlishly exercising powers of discrimination or is the BBC overstepping its commercial bounds?

It seemed such a simple idea: approach the BBC and strike a deal for the rights to use a BBC series in a national newspaper promotion. But Mirror Group has found ITV unwilling to carry advertising for its Big Break promotion. And now The Sunday Times and The Daily Telegraph are caught in the crossfire of the renewed debate on just how “commercially aware” the BBC can be without contravening its Charter.

Mirror Group’s deal with the BBC to run a Big Break game-card promotion was announced last month when it acquired the rights to exploit the BBC1 snooker quiz, presented by Jim Davidson (MW January 13). “Play Big Break and Pot a Fortune,” ran the full-page ad in Radio Times. It confirmed the increasingly flexible approach to commercialism championed by the BBC following last year’s Government White Paper.

However, the deal provoked a storm. ITV Network Centre chief executive Andrew Quinn called it “sponsorship by any other name”. Independent Television Commission chief executive David Glencross drew attention to renewed fears about “creeping commercialism” at the BBC in a newspaper article. Meanwhile, ITV sales chiefs claimed the ads Mirror Group wanted them to broadcast would invite viewers to switch over from ITV to BBC1.

So, ITV banned it. Under ITC guidelines all broadcasters are required to broadcast ads for competitors, but they have the right to refuse ads that promote specific programmes on rival channels at a particular time. It was on this basis that ITV turned the Mirror Group down.

Mirror Group then proposed revised copy but this was still unacceptable to ITV, according to the publishing company’s director of marketing Amanda Platell. It then appealed against ITV to the ITC. But the ITC confirmed last week it saw no reason to intervene – effectively an endorse- ment of ITV (MW January 27).

As if all of that wasn’t enough, ITV then accepted – and transmitted – commercials for a Sunday Times promotion which featured BBC1’s Antiques Roadshow. News International had followed Mirror Group’s lead, striking its own deal with the BBC. Its ads included elements ITV had turned down when suggested for Mirror Group’s ads, Platell maintains, such as the show’s presenter Hugh Scully, the show’s name, featured in the promotion’s title, and an invitation to the viewer to switch over. She believes ITV’s move is discriminatory: “It couldn’t do this to Tesco or Sainsbury’s.”

ITV, however, stresses, the Sunday Times commercial was “less overt” and so was acceptable. As a result, Mirror Group has threatened legal action (MW January 27).

The hardship suffered so far by Mirror Group is debatable. Platell admits that the Big Break promotion is Mirror Group’s most successful TV promotion to date. Last year, the company sponsored the ITV series You Bet, Take Your Pick and Strike It Lucky. She claims the most effective of these achieved only 90 per cent of the success of Big Break which has contributed to an extra 130,000 readers taking the Daily Mirror on a Saturday. The promotion involves viewers of the programme using Mirror cards to enter a competition.

However, she stresses: “We believe it would have achieved much better results if we had been allowed to support it with TV advertising.

“There seems to be one law for News International, another for everyone else.”

The row highlights a number of issues. Firstly, there is the matter of just how commercial is the BBC allowed to be?

ITV believes the BBC’s “creeping commercialism” must be more widely recognised and debated. Lobbying is already underway to draw it to the attention of National Heritage secretary Stephen Dorrell. According to one senior ITV sales source: “The BBC is indulging in `quasi-commercialism’. It’s like being half-pregnant. Such activities are clearly a flagrant abuse.”

The BBC, meanwhile, claims these deals are simply another example of the licensing of a programme property – something the Corporation has done for many years with books, videos and character-licensing deals struck with a range of commercial partners. In the case of the deal struck with The Daily Telegraph, which is running a game-card promotion around BBC2’s Today’s the Day, the BBC says it remains only “a contractor” in the deal worked out between the show’s production company, Mentorn Films, and sales promotion company, ZGC.

Under the BBC’s Royal Charter, no on-screen mentions of the newspaper involved in any such promotion is permitted on BBC airtime. Instead, in the case of The Telegraph, negotiations are underway for the newspaper to be mentioned on the 0898 premium rate telephone line given out during the show. And in all printed material supporting the promotions, including press ads, it is clearly stated that games are not run by the BBC, nor has it provided prize money.

The benefit of all this to the BBC is obvious. BBC programmes can be promoted in newspapers and via rival channels. In the case of Big Break, the newspaper deal means readers playing the game at home are less likely to switch over to ITV’s Baywatch, giving BBC a good start to Saturday night.

Yet the deals also highlight a second issue: Just why did Mirror Group turn to the Corporation in the first place?

Platell claims it was through “pure frustration” with past treatment by ITV. Newspaper firms are charged over the odds for TV sponsorship, she maintains. If newspapers use a show in a reader promotion, the broadcaster recognises the importance of that show in this strategy and hikes the rates. “We had been searching for shows and had a number offered and withdrawn. Our only answer was to turn to the BBC,” she explains.

Last year saw a number of newspapers striking sponsorship deals with ITV, running themed promotions and game cards to drive circulation. The competitiveness of the newspaper market fuelled competition for the best shows. It was, perhaps, inevitable that there would come a time when the supply of viable TV vehicles was exhausted.

But it is also a reflection of ITV’s lack of foresight, believes Adam Richardson, partner at Powerhouse Consultancy, a division of Leagas Shaffron Davis Ayer. “The network has handled the situation appallingly,” he says. “It has created this situation itself.”

He adds: “If (the ITV companies) were smart they would have got products for both newspapers (The Sun and the Daily Mirror) and played one off against the other.” Instead, lack of supply and rising costs drove Mirror Group to look elsewhere.

Any suggestion that publishers are charged more for sponsorship than other companies is vigorously denied by ITV. “It is competition for the best shows that pushes prices up,” stresses one. This is confirmed by an agency source involved in one of the other newspaper deals. “It’s not a blanket policy, it’s all down to negotiations,” he says. “If Mirror Group feels it has been ripped off in the past, that’s its business. To be frank, it’s tough – it didn’t have to do those deals.”

What undoubtedly frustrates ITV is that aside from the question of whether the BBC should be allowed to strike such deals, there remains the fact that suddenly, advertisers have a new supply of shows to draw on. As if to rub salt into the wound, Platell praises the BBC for being “very responsive and imaginative”.

Nor are the three newspaper deals struck so far likely to be the last. Richardson adds: “BBC1 and BBC2’s involvement with various publishers regarding differing programmes with very different audiences has to be more than a tentative toe in the water.”

So expect renewed debate on the BBC’s commercial activities. And with the BBC running its own “advertising campaign” on BBC1 for Radio 2’s Terry Wogan show – featuring a Marilyn Monroe lookalike and singing sailors – it won’t be long before commercial radio industry enters the fray too.

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