Question of identity provides no clear answer to ITV’s future

ITV must unify its various brands to succeed, but a clear national identity seems to be beyond its reach. Nick Higham investigates. Nick Higham is BBC TV’s media correspondent.

The scale of the problem facing the team at the ITV Network Centre was illustrated last weekend in one of those tiresome parlour games at which the Edinburgh Television Festival excels.

A room full of television executives were asked whether they thought ITV had a positive or negative brand image – and told to congregate at opposite ends of the room according to preference.

It was like tilting a bottle. Virtually the entire company flooded down to the negative end, leaving a few brave souls clinging – like stray bits of cork near the neck – to the positive end.

Now, Edinburgh delegates aren’t exactly representative of the viewing public, but ITV does have an image problem, and it’s not going to get any easier to resolve. The new team (chief executive Richard Eyre, network director David Liddiment and a director of marketing yet to be appointed) inherits an enterprise with a long history and heritage, but a confused identity and an uncertain future in an increasingly competitive world.

As more than one debate at Edinburgh showed, there are no simple solutions.

ITV’s shares its first problem with BBC1. Both are general-interest channels in a world where niche services with clear brand identities are winning ever more market share.

David Brook, director of marketing at Channel 5, is convinced of the value of specialisation and the danger to a brand of the WH Smith approach of trying to be all things to all people. Channel 5 itself has triumphantly resolved this problem with its “modern mainstream” positioning and a coherent approach to its promotion.

It’s just a pity that C5’s branding is often better than its programmes, although some of Brook’s fellow panellists turn the conventional thinking of television on its head, arguing that where more and more channels are competing for the attention of viewers and advertisers (as well as the cable operators which need to decide whether to give them distribution, often without knowing anything about their content), programmes really don’t matter.

“People in a multichannel universe won’t come to you just because you’ve got good programmes,” says Chris Turner of Discovery Communications Europe. “Branding gives people a framework for understanding the flood of information that’s coming in.”

ITV doesn’t have the problem of winning acceptance from new customers which know nothing about it. But it does have the problem – one it can’t help – of being a WH Smith, which doesn’t even have the advantage of the same name on the shop fascia nationwide.

In many parts of the UK the name “ITV” means very little: Scottish Television in Scotland, Granada in the North-west, Yorkshire in Yorkshire are far stronger brands regionally than ITV.

The network, in developing a new branding and marketing strategy, has to find some way of accommodating this discrepancy – a problem which has hitherto defeated some of the best minds in the business. There is, quite simply, no way that a company like Granada or Scottish (especially Scottish) is going to give up something as successful as its name.

Yet all efforts to promote a unified, national ITV brand risk foundering on that rock. The best anyone could come up with during the discussions at Edinburgh was that ITV should brand itself nationally during peak hours, but adopt regional identities at other times – and especially in the crucial early evening period around the regional news.

In the City they think that problem – and quite a few more of those facing the network – might be solved by further mergers to form a single “ITV plc” which one City firm, BZW, reckons would be worth 5bn.

But it won’t happen. The rules don’t allow it – and the rules aren’t likely to be changed until ITV’s dominance of the advertising market has been eroded further (don’t take my word for it, take that of Peter Rogers, chief executive of the Independent Television Commission).

As Eileen Gallagher, managing director of Granada and LWT Broadcasting, points out, ITV was created as a network of regional companies not only to provide regional programming but also to weaken it by having internal competition (especially in London) for advertising revenue.

Ironically, of course, by the time ITV’s dominance has slipped sufficiently for the regulators to loosen the reins, that deliberately inbuilt weakness may have eroded its financial strength to the point where it is incapable of re-establishing itself.

In fact, ITV has consolidated in several important ways. Marcus Plantin, the outgoing network director, highlighted one of them when he pointed out that 60 per cent of ITV’s programmes now come from a single source (Granada, which also owns LWT and Yorkshire-Tyne Tees).

In Plantin’s view that is a problem: it gives one programme supplier too much power within the network. There are other problems too, not least maintaining (and, if at all possible, improving) ITV’s audience share.

But reinventing ITV as a brand with the potential to survive and flourish for many years to come must be high on the new team’s list.

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