ITV must regain BBC viewers to cut inflation

1996 saw total TV viewing rise, yet the figures for ITV are falling. Advertisers are feeling the inflationary pinch of declining audiences, so ITV has to act now – to win back viewers from the BBC, says John Perriss. John Perriss is chairman o

Advertisers are aggrieved about the rising cost of television, and rightly so as it is more than twice the rate of general price rises.

The Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA) has yet to go fully public but has announced it intends to push for greater advertising minutage to increase audience supply and reduce inflation.

The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) developed a “four-point plan” 18 months ago, which includes a commitment to deliver extra advertising minutage without sacrificing communication effectiveness. But it also concentrates on three other strategies.

The first is to pressure the BBC into staying within its 1992 “Extending Choice Programming” remit and not to make so many overtly “populist” programmes, the second is for ITV to continue to increase investment in programming and the third to press for ITC scheduling constraints to be removed.

Judged by the summary of the 1996 viewing data, our campaigns are not generating the improvements we would wish and even a minutage increase would only have a temporary benefit.

Inflation is created by increased demand and static or declining audiences. Market forces can limit demand but the supply of audience can be improved by broadcasters.

Surprisingly, in 1996 total television viewing increased by two per cent for all individuals. Predictably, the largest increase year on year was to satellite and cable channels which increased by 21.5 per cent. The only channel to lose viewing in a rising market was ITV/GMTV, in other words what you receive through the Channel 3 button, with a 3.9 per cent decline.

Since ITV/GMTV remains the prime volume audience provider for advertisers, the ITV audience decline ratchets up the inflationary spiral. It is difficult to understand how such a decline can be tolerated by ITV and its customers. The more so because, excluding satellite and cable, the brand remorselessly making the share gains isn’t the “avaricious, possibly soon-to-be-privatised” Channel 4 but the allegedly staid, bureaucratic, state-sponsored BBC.

BBC1 increased its viewing by individuals by 2.9 per cent in 1996 and BBC2 by 5.5 per cent. Since 1992, ITV/GMTV’s share has slumped from 40.8 per cent to 35.1 per cent. BBC1’s share has only fallen by four per cent. It is understandable if ITV loses audience to satellite, but to have growing audience erosion by BBC1 is indefensible.

If ITV’s and BBC1’s performances continue at their current rates, by 1998 BBC1 will enjoy a 34.5 per cent share and little ITV just 32.3 per cent.

Declining audience share means declining revenue and with the reduction of C4’s subsidy, the launch of Channel 5 and further growth in cable and satellite, ITV/GMTV faces big problems. As a relative outsider I see little sense of a united purpose from ITV in addressing the problem. ITV needs to deliver volume audiences to live up to its mission statement and be commercially viable.

It needs to join the IPA lobby to get the BBC to stick to its remit, and make the scheduling improvements such as cutting the 15 minutes of local news, weather and promotions following News at Ten which make people turn over.

Advertisers will face a difficult task in reaching mass audiences if ITV continues to give its audience to the BBC.

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