Liddiment reveals brave new schedule to boost ITV audience

So advertisers will have to wait a little longer to see if ITV will finally take the plunge and move News at Ten.

Richard Eyre’s “100 days” was never likely to be long enough to decide whether or not to change the fundamental structure of the ITV schedule, but he, David Liddiment and John Hardie have made a brave start.

The appointment of HHCL & Partners to handle the network’s creative work and the announcement of audience targets for the next three years are both “brave” decisions – as Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister would say. And though some might consider the share targets a hostage to fortune – giving advertisers another stick with which to beat the channel they love to hate – it undoubtedly sets a new tone, and note of confidence, in the network’s relationship with its paymasters.

The new team have not shrunk from the hard statistics of their inheritance. ITV’s peak time share has fallen from 44 per cent in 1994 to just under 39 per cent last year. BBC1’s share, by contrast, has dropped by less than one per cent in that time, and for much of the period actually went up.

Eyre’s aim is to hold a 38 per cent peak-time share this year, rising to 39 per cent next year and 40 per cent in the year 2000.

How ITV intends to rectify the situation and meet its self-imposed targets is not quite so clear. And though Hardie and HHCL have an important role to play, it is Liddiment’s programme schedule that will be fundamental to its success. I asked him how he proposed to halt the ratings decline.

“We’ve made significant changes in the commissioning structure of ITV”, he says. “And we’ll be introducing initiatives in factual programming, drama, entertainment and comedy that I believe will significantly strengthen our hand.”

On factual programmes, he has already poached some of the people responsible for the BBC’s hugely popular fly-on-the-wall ventures. These “pop-docs” have turned on its head the accepted wisdom that factual programmes must be consigned to the margins of a commercial schedule. Liddiment has already injected several into the winter schedule, such as Neighbours From Hell. But his belief in factual programming goes beyond mere opportunism.

“I think factual programmes are very, very important, particularly for a channel like ITV which is a mass-audience channel and which has to be in tune with its audience at all times. There is no better way of doing this than through documentaries and factual series.”

This is a view that has not been fashionable in ITV in recent years, if ever. But Liddiment rejects the notion that the network has pushed almost all its programming of this kind out of peak time. “Our factual programmes and current affairs sit firmly and squarely in peak time – you will certainly see no marginalisation on ITV.”

Which brings us firmly and squarely to News at Ten. Liddiment cannot yet say if it will move. “The basic shape of the ITV schedule has not fundamentally changed in nearly 30 years and we’re not going to reach a decision on the future structure in a matter of three months. We’re examining a whole range of options – it is not a question of examining the timing of the news but of examining the architecture of the whole schedule.”

Of course, the concentration on factual programming is relative. Drama will remain as the centrepiece of ITV’s schedule, but while Liddiment says he’s lucky to have inherited some very healthy banker series, he is introducing a new “investment” plan to ensure there are strong replacements when these come to the end of their natural lives.

He also knows ITV has to improve its record on comedy. His predecessor dropped Men Behaving Badly only to see Liddiment, then at the BBC, snap it up. “I am going to rethink the way we approach our situation comedy and I will be making “more of less” – raising the stakes in terms of the judgements I make about what gets on the screen. Those that do will be backed with a strong place in the schedule, by significant marketing and longer runs.”

Part of ITV’s problem is that its audience, though still the largest of any channel, is relatively old and downmarket. BSkyB and Channel 5 have made no bones about targeting younger viewers. Liddiment says: “It’s certainly true that with multichannel television there is more niche targeting, which makes life more difficult for a mass-market channel like ours that tries to appeal across the board. But I believe we can move the profile of ITV broadly in line with the profile of the country.”

That’s where the marketing and identity of the channel need to change, particularly since Sky and Channel 5 have strong records in this area. But though marketing policy will be more centralised, Liddiment makes clear – as a Granada graduate – that the individual company brands will not be abandoned. “It remains one of ITV’s greatest strengths that it is a regional network with very strong regional branding and we are going to play to that strength.”

And where does he hope to win the audience back from? Advertisers have made it clear they want ITV to take viewers from the BBC, to increase the commercial audience, which Liddiment recognises. “As a mass-market channel, we have to see BBC1 as the key competitor but, speaking personally, I’d be happy to see our audience grow and develop from wherever I can get it.” Since he now has a very public audience target to meet, that is quite understandable – but to win viewers from anywhere, he may yet have to move the news.

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