How far can ITV turn the screw

In Greek mythology, Procrustes was a highway robber with the rather distressing habit of tying his victims to an iron bed. If their limbs were too long, he hacked them off; if too short, he stretched them to fit.

In the current version of this fable, advertisers have cast themselves as the innocent wayfarer. Media inflation is that iron bed. And ITV plays the role of Procrustes. It is difficult not to sympathise with them. We live in a low-inflation environment, one of whose characteristics is economic uncertainty. ITV, though still the motor medium of mass advertising, is losing audience; and is in any case a declining market force. How, then, can it possibly justify airtime inflation of 12 per cent, rising fast? Market forces, comes the complacent reply. Airtime is rationed, but demand stoking up. Alternative channels exist of course, but (so say ITV sales houses) they simply can’t guarantee the audience. And there is some truth in this.

To add insult to injury, ITV executives seem hell-bent on blocking constructive proposals to alleviate the situation. They won’t move News at Ten and World in Action away from peak-time to improve ratings. Too risky politically. They hear the arguments about extra minutage, but cynically dismiss them as unacceptable to the industry in general. Here again, the argument, though self-serving, is not entirely at variance with truth. Sceptics like Zenith’s Christine Walker are concerned that extra minutage might diminish advertising effectiveness; the ITC, on the other hand, deprecates its impact on programmes. Ah yes, programmes. Investment hasn’t matched rising ITV profits, say the advertisers – you only have to look at ratings to see the result. In response, ITV has promised extra funding for the autumn schedule: details remain aggravatingly vague.

This simply won’t do, John Hooper, director-general of ISBA, will be telling his members. And rightly so. But the solution is elusive. Advertising on the BBC? Not this side of 2006. On Channel 5 then? Rupert Murdoch doesn’t think the sums add up, and this magazine believes him. On the other hand, the arguments about minutage on ITV deserve closer scrutiny. Should we seriously believe that an extra 30 seconds an hour will undermine programme content? Or that viewers will really notice? More likely, they will notice a sustained improvement in programme quality, if they are lucky enough to get one.

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