ITV has deservedly attracted much flak over the past few months because of its falling audience share – particularly at peak time.

Clients who use ITV do so predominantly because they want their brands to benefit from the high rating, coverage-building properties of the its peak-time programmes. For most advertisers, the other segments are only used to lower costs.

Now that the dust has settled on the ITV sales house merry-go-round, the three sales teams are collaborating on a number of projects designed to emphasise the strength of the ITV product. Perhaps the most significant of these is Laser-sponsored research which looks at the viewing habits of the lightest TV viewers, unlike the current BARB or TGI analysis which considers only light viewers in general.

Unsurprisingly, this research shows that ITV – peak time in particular – is the best at reaching these viewers. The analysis is designed to achieve a number of things.

First, it is supposed to be a pre-emptive strike at what is likely to be a major element of Channel 4’s sales policy for 1997. After all, C4 can no longer claim a clear cost advantage over ITV, and it is working with BARB to develop more research into light viewers.

Second, it will be used during the annual negotiation season to force the rate up at peak time, and also remove more programmes from the station price mechanism.

Finally, the initiative is a genuine attempt to improve on the vagaries of the BARB system. However, it awaits confirmation from buyers who can report the benefits of buying more peak – or better peak – despite paying a higher price on their schedules. Using conventional research, this view is likely to meet with limited support from media departments.

But this seems to avoid the main issue, which is whatever one uses to measure the performance of ITV peak-time, it’s hard to deny that it’s not as potent as it once was. And there’s no sign of real improvement until next year at the earliest. Certain ITV broadcasters will claim that one of the reasons for this lies within the terms of the current ITV franchises.

Under these terms the ITV companies were compelled to commission 25 per cent of new product from independent programme producers.

The problem here has been too few independently produced successes. The major ITV producers claim they have found themselves passing on formats and making programmes for rivals because the ITV quota was full, unlike the independent quota.

It is for reasons like this that we find appalling programmes like Man O Man on the schedule, despite a collective view before it was aired that it would fail.

Hamstrung by an unofficial policy of rotating new commissions between the major programming companies, ITV can ill afford this philanthropic and arcane ruling.

ITV companies are sure to bring this up with the Independent Television Commission when the franchise terms are reviewed at the halfway stage. It is true that much of the independent product is either long in the tooth or tabloid in style.

The ITC will have to consider whether ITV itself would produce a more worthwhile product.

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