ITV must yield to forces of change

If ITV fails to meet advertisers’ expectations it may, eventually, find that they reallocate spend to other, more accountable disciplines.

On his first day as ITV chief executive, Richard Eyre gave a speech which was music to advertisers’ ears. He pledged a new vision for programming and scheduling to improve declining audience share and asked for 100 days to translate this into a strategy. He also revealed that senior ITV executives’ financial remuneration would in future be linked to improved ratings.

Clients are increasingly pinning their hopes for improved ITV audiences and reduced airtime inflation on Eyre and his new senior management team because they themselves are apparently incapable of bringing about change. Director of programmes David Liddiment, head of planning and strategy David Bergg and Eyre himself have all been put in place in the past three months (MW September 25).

The final pieces in the ITV management jigsaw – a marketing and commercial director and a controller for daytime programming – have yet to be announced, but both had better have broad backs to carry the growing weight of advertisers’ expectations.

All clients agree TV airtime inflation is a huge concern that has to be tackled. The latest figures, quoted by Initiative Media broadcast director David Cuff at the Marketing Forum, show that ITV’s share of viewing has declined from 38.1 per cent to 33.5 per cent between 1993 and 1996, while over the past five years TV inflation has been running at four to seven times the retail price index (RPI), depending on audience.

And with the existing controversial trading mechanism of station average price, ITV, argue critics, can afford to be complacent because it continues to be rewarded despite declining audience share. The fewer viewers it has, the more money an advertiser must spend to reach the same number of people.

Everyone is agreed on the problem, but how to deal with it is another matter. The Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA) sent the Independent Television Commission (ITC) a 60-page submission calling for an increase in minutage, and less than a fortnight ago received a one-page reply turning the request down flat.

The ITC responded: “There would be an inevitable reduction in programming time and no guarantee of any increase in revenue for the broadcasters leading to improvements in programme quality.”

So, if the fight for more minutage looks like a lost cause for the time being, how else can advertisers and their industry representatives reduce inflation? Persuading any Government to put ads on the BBC, even if they were public service campaigns, looks unlikely. This leaves just two alternatives – persuade advertisers to cut demand by shifting spend to other media; or put pressure on ITV for better programming, scheduling and marketing.

Frustration at this lack of room for manoeuvre spilled over at this year’s Marketing Forum, when there were calls for a boycott of one or more of the ITV sales houses (perhaps by the top five advertisers) in a radical attempt to force down TV airtime inflation (MW September 25). Unofficially, advertisers have boycotted sales houses already but any co-ordinated action would effectively be a show of strength.

In a heated discussion, ISBA director general John Hooper supported such a move saying: “If we really want to tackle this, we spend less. It’s your money. Perhaps we should try the tactics of our union brethren.

“If you voluntarily decided you wanted to make an issue of it and if I can assist in it I think it’s a very good idea.”

However, the drastic suggestion of a boycott has been met with little concrete support away from the cruise ship Oriana.

“It’ll never happen in a million years,” was one buyer’s verdict.

“Not inconceivable, but far from likely,” says Bob Wootton, director of media services at ISBA.

The consensus is that advertisers will never act in concert to organise a boycott. Co-operation between the biggest spenders (BT, Procter & Gamble, Kellogg, Ford and Unilever) would be impossible because it would put them at such a short-term commercial disadvantage within their respective industry sectors. Other advertisers would jump into the void and grab the cheaper airtime.

A P&G spokesman was adamant the company could fight its own battles. He says: “It is up to individual advertisers to define their own policy. We would like to see commercial TV producing a better product that attracts a bigger audience.

“If ITV doesn’t do that it will become a declining brand. People will find alternative outlets for ad and marketing expenditure. ITV is beginning to understand things can’t go on the way they have been.”

The idea of a boycott is perhaps not as far-fetched as it first appears because it is already going on in microcosm – big advertisers have always used it as a negotiating tactic.

The gap between advertisers’ expectations and what ITV can deliver has been growing almost as fast as the inflation both claim they want to combat. But Eyre and his team have this week given cause for a new optimism – that they can reduce the gap and that they have the will to make it a priority.

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