ITV will need national brand to fight off multichannel system

ITV’s new executives face the problem of inventing a national brand for a product whose main strength is its regionality. By Torin Douglas. Torin Douglas is BBC Radio’s media correspondent

Was it only a fortnight ago when I was observing that a media director had finally got the job of sorting out ITV? Now, it seems, there are two.

Stuart Butterfield’s appointment as managing director of Granada UK Broadcasting – hot on the heels of Richard Eyre’s as chief executive of the ITV Network – is welcome recognition that he, as much as anyone, was responsible for Channel 4’s remarkable commercial success in recent years.

It is easy to forget how many people thought the minority channel would be gobbled up and spat out by ITV when it first had to sell its own advertising. One reminder is the “funding formula”, by which C4 now subsidises ITV: it was originally set up to protect the smaller channel from potential financial disaster.

Those who thought Butterfield, as media director of McCann-Erickson, was too cerebral for the hard-nosed world of commercial TV were proven wrong. The fact that two “thinking men’s media directors” – he and Eyre – will have a crucial role in ITV’s future must be good news.

But it does not make the task of pulling ITV into shape any easier – and no question is of greater importance than how the network is to brand itself.

The story in last week’s Independent that the companies had been advised, by the consultants Bain & Co, to adopt a single Channel 3 brand during peak- time has been denied by senior ITV executives. They told the magazine Broadcast that the Bain report made no strategic recommendations, merely outlining ITV’s economic prospects.

That doesn’t mean the suggestion wasn’t discussed in the report. And certainly the issue of how ITV presents itself is being debated within the companies and Network Centre. A source at the Scottish Media Group was quoted as attacking the idea of a Channel 3 brand: “We believe in the identity of Scottish Television. People here don’t talk about ITV: they talk about Scottish.”

By contrast, Martin Bowley of Carlton says: “We’re competing against uniform networks like the BBC. What does a viewer care if the programme is from Carlton or Granada? It’s the quality that matters.”

Till now, ITV has managed to have its cake and eat it, trading both on its national and its regional strengths. Nowhere was this better illustrated than in a recent ITV report called “ITV: Leading Britain in Regional Television”. ITV’s regional structure is one of its strengths, and despite the growing amalgamation in the system, many of its benefits remain, underwritten by commitments to the Independent Television Commission.

At the ITV report’s core was an NOP poll which, according to the press release, showed “74 per cent of British viewers consider ITV serves the needs and interests of their region better than any other television channel”. The report’s appendix has a barchart which shows: “ITV 74 per cent, BBC1 21 per cent.”

Yet this is not entirely accurate. At the launch press conference I asked the assembled ITV executives what question had actually been put to the viewers? Were they asked if ITV served their region best (as compared with BBC1, BBC2, C4 and cable and satellite)? Or were they given the name of their local ITV company?

You can guess the answer. As the man from Scottish said: “People here don’t talk about ITV: they talk about Scottish.” And if you ask them which station represents their regional needs better, a station called Scottish or a station called BBC1, you can also guess the answer.

I am not taking up cudgels on behalf of the BBC here. Most ITV companies rightly have a high reputation in their regions. The conundrum for ITV is that they are all separate brands.

So where does this leave the idea of a peaktime national brand, called either ITV or Channel 3? The problem of the name Channel 3 is it is yet another term for an organisation which already has too many. If you thought ITV needed a total relaunch, with a new image, you might want a new name – but throwing away a brand with 40 years’ heritage is risky. Even Scottish viewers know their local station has something to do with ITV.

Is a separate peaktime brand – whatever the name – feasible? One precedent is at breakfast when first TV-am and then GMTV took over the ITV airtime and built a national brand. Unfortunately, this has as many disadvantages as advantages. During the election, GMTV executives were furious that ITV’s election publicity made no mention of their programmes.

Given the ITC’s announcement last week that it has decided not to alter the ITV “clock” in the next ten-year licence period – and so not give back to the companies their “lost” breakfast hours – does it make sense to extract another part of the day and then brand that as something different?

Possibly not – but that still leaves the question as to how you brand the channel as a whole? With the imminent arrival of digital television and the all-powerful Electronic Programme Guides, strong and simple branding will become more important, not less.

Is it time, dare one ask, for the Snickers manoeuvre? Older readers will recall that until the 1992 European Single Market, there was a brand called Marathon and the word “snickers” prompted… well, Snickers. Mars – which is no slouch at marketing – decided that the future was pan-European and the much-loved Marathon should change into the much-mocked US Snickers. Devolution notwithstanding, is it time for Scottish – and the rest – to accept that the future of TV is multichannel, and some sacrifices have to be made? I think you can guess the answer.

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