Little room for negotiations

TV `95 provided a real opportunity for advertisers and ITV to settle their differences, but despite a few exceptions, the big issues were brushed aside. By Torin Douglas

SBHD: TV `95 provided a real opportunity for advertisers and ITV to settle their differences, but despite a few exceptions, the big issues were brushed aside. By Torin Douglas

It’s good to talk, as Bob Hoskins might have said had he been in Monte Carlo last week. But it’s better to have a dialogue, and that was was sadly missing from the TV `95 conference.

Whatever discussions took place in the bars and restaurants, the formal sessions rarely produced any debate on the main issues of interest to advertisers – TV inflation, the question of whether to increase advertising minutage, overdealing, and the power and structure of ITV.

Andrew Quinn, ITV’s outgoing chief executive, appeared to welcome this in his closing speech, saying the conference had been refreshingly free of “media politics”. Instead, he said, it had concentrated on ways of using the TV medium more effectively.

Few of the advertisers and agencies appeared to agree, regarding the avoidance of “media politics” as at best a missed opportunity and at worst a deliberate avoidance of confrontation. The marketing director of BhS, Helen Packshaw, spoke for many when, at a relatively early stage in the conference, she said she was irritated by the complacency of the two ITV speakers, Network Director Marcus Plantin and Laser chief executive Mick Desmond.

And that was before she’d heard Andrea Wonfor. The managing director of Granada appeared to have misread the title of her presentation, which on my programme stated: “Programme budgeting and the multi-channel environment”. Her version appeared to read: “Haven’t we done well? – just look at our reel”.

The sad thing is that ITV has done well – and Granada, with programmes like Cracker, Prime Suspect, Coronation Street and This Morning, particularly well. But it has not yet found a way of getting this message across to its major customers without reinforcing their perception that it is arrogant and complacent.

Advertisers are an ungrateful bunch. They rarely acknowledge that many of the things they have been asking for have come to pass – that ITV’s share of TV revenue has shrunk to about 70 per cent in the past two years, and that it has produced a string of hit dramas tailored to their own audience requirements.

They forget what a traumatic impact the changes of the 1990 Broadcasting Act could have had on ITV’s audience levels, if the Network Centre had not been there to ensure stability while six of the largest ITV companies were in the throes of takeovers.

They ignore the fact they can now sort out a large slice of their national advertising requirements with Channel Four and BSkyB before opening discussions with the ITV companies and playing them off against each other. They urge the companies to get together to take on the rest of the world (so multinational advertisers can more easily reach their international customers) while telling them not to reduce the number of sales points (which would stifle competition at home).

And now that demand for airtime is rising once more (after a slump of several years, for which they were presumably grateful), advertisers are complaining again about TV inflation. To ITV, it must seem most unfair.

But as long as ITV is a monopoly supplier (and in the legal sense of that word it will remain so for the foreseeable future), it must accept that its customers have the right to complain. And it must bend over backwards to build a dialogue with advertisers, to ensure that they are aware of its achievements and it is aware of their concerns.

To be fair, it did try. Marcus Plantin’s presentation showed what ITV has achieved in its programming, while entertaining and flattering its biggest clients with a specially-produced spoof of a Touch of Frost, featuring David Jason. Mick Desmond referred to all the issues advertisers are concerned about and admitted in some cases ITV had been at fault: “We plead guilty. We don’t offer excuses, but we ask for understanding.”

The problem was that in neither case did a dialogue follow. Questioned about the decline in overall TV viewing, Plantin appeared to offer few solutions and little hope that the trend could be reversed. Perhaps because it was the opening session, no one from the audience challenged him. And the all-important sales directors’ session – in which Desmond was presenting with Channel 4’s Andy Barnes and satellite and cable’s Nick Milligan – ran out of time before questions could be asked.

This was partly because of a mammoth overrun by a previous speaker, but also because too little time had been allocated for what should have been the central session of the conference. Yet at other moments, long question sessions had been scheduled to follow presentations that people had no interest in discussing. The organisers – not unconnected with this organ – appeared to have no theme or structure in mind, and it showed. The other elements of the conference were organised extremely well – and everyone I spoke to had a great time – but at its heart TV `95 missed the point.

Despite this, some sessions worked well in themselves. The debate about the role and value of the TV buying auditors was excellent, though it too could have benefited from a longer discussion period (even though one buyer told me he could never have put his view, for fear of being penalised the next time one of his campaigns was audited).

The Channel 5 presentation by ISBA’s new director general, John Hooper, laid out the advertisers’ hopes and demands for a new competitor to ITV, though under a hail of questions – the first of which he answered “Dunno”, much to the surprise and irritation of some of his members – it became clear it involved more than a touch of wishful thinking. The new channel is being urged to produce a large ABC1 audience, mainly taken from the BBC, with an annual programme budget of under ú100m – as if ITV and Channel 4 were not trying hard to pull off the same trick with greater resources.

John Dale of Pedigree explored the issue of media convergence, contrasting the problems of the growing concen- tration of power in ITV and the iniquities of conditional selling, with the potential benefits if ITV were to abandon its in-fighting. He said they should stop “trying to screw each other” and come together to sell British programme expertise abroad. He didn’t take kindly to a suggestion from Andrea Wonfor that this smacked of inconsistency.

It is too much to hope that advertisers and ITV will ever bury all their hatchets – why should they when they have genuine disagreements and often opposing interests? But TV `95 was a useful chance to air these issues, and it’s gone begging.

Torin Douglas is BBC Radio’s correspondent.

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