Spanish inquisition

This week’s Barcelona TV conference, running from March 12 to 13, will be the last before the launch of digital TV.

Conference organiser Liz Mackenzie, divisional director of Marketing Week conferences, says: “Last year the conference looked just at terrestrial TV. This year it is going to be about terrestrial, digital, cable and satellite. We want the event to grow up a bit.”

It was felt that the format of holding the conference at Monte Carlo every two years was getting stale. By moving it to Barcelona, the organisers hope to rejuvenate the conference, and shake off a growing complacency surrounding the event.

The onset of digital TV gives this year’s delegates an opportunity to sit down and consider what it will really mean for their business. Nigel Walmsley, director of British Digital Broadcasting (the digital terrestrial joint venture between Carlton and Granada), will give his view on the conflict between terrestrial and satellite channels, their respective strengths and what are likely to be the main reasons for growth.

His speech is expected to be one of the most eagerly awaited on the first full day of the conference, which is almost wholly devoted to issues surrounding digital TV.

Former National Heritage Secretary David Mellor will consider the continuing debate about how much money viewers will be prepared to spend to watch certain programmes and sporting events.

Richard Burdett, vice-president of marketing at Flextech, will assess how quickly niche digital channels will become a viable advertising medium, while there will be presentations on the growth of interactive digital services, the changing role of the media agency in this multichannel environment and media fragmentation’s effects on advertising effectiveness.

But the real test for the success of TV Barcelona will be how far it can give advertisers the precise answers to their questions about digital TV. Since last September, digital television has run into problems, delaying the launches of both digital satellite and digital terrestrial TV which inevitably means discussion will be more vague because of the commercial sensitivities surrounding more concrete details.

Conference delegates wanting to know launch dates, pricing of the new subscription channels and exactly what digital TV will offer in programming terms are almost certain to come away disappointed. As a spokesman for BDB says, because the operation is not expected to launch until the last quarter of this year, it is not yet at that point where it can reveal these details.

One sceptical media buyer says: “Digital is still far away – both in terms of take-up for consumers and how far broadcasters’ have got in developing content to make it interesting for viewers and, consequently, advertisers. It won’t revolutionise things in the next 18 months.”

Bob Wootton, director of media services at the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, says the conference must maintain a balance between debating the issues of the present and the future.

He points out that digital is still a relatively non-confrontational issue, compared with advertisers’ long-running concerns over the issue of TV cost inflation and ITV’s ability to deliver audiences.

Wootton argues that the pressing topics surrounding digital television must be addressed, but that there is a danger it will be used to avoid the more confrontational issues on the agenda. “If the conference is just about digital, we are going to come away feeling shortchanged.

“As long as TV cost inflation continues to exercise advertisers I will be there raising it as an issue. Everyone can be an expert on digital. No one is accountable. If we talk just about digital it takes the eye off the ball where millions of pounds are being spent today (that is on terrestrial TV).”

As a subsidiary issue, he says the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers will continue to lobby at the conference for increased minutage to bring down airtime inflation, despite last year’s setback when the ITC turned down ISBA’s proposals on this subject.

TV Barcelona may be the last conference before the launch of the first digital channels, but it will also be the first since Richard Eyre was made chief executive of the Network Centre.

Veterans of Monte Carlo say that past conferences have been an opportunity to publicly and privately accuse ITV of arrogance and complacency as its costs continue to rise while its share of viewing continues to fall.

Since Eyre’s appointment, followed by the arrival of marketing and commercial director John Hardie and director of programmes David Liddiment, ITV has been in publicly penitent mode, and has declared its intention of improving its peaktime performance, with the recently-revealed target of reaching a 40 per cent audience share by 2000.

Advertisers and their agency representatives will be looking for tangible reasons to believe ITV can reach its stated objectives, and will be listening for evidence on the second day of the conference when both Eyre and Hardie will address delegates.

Only last month Martin Sorrell, chief executive of WPP, warned at the company’s yearly results that the rising cost of TV advertising was forcing companies to turn to alternative media such as radio, posters, the Internet, magazines and news-papers, sales promotion and public relations.

Sorrell will be speaking at the conference on the implications of global media, as media buying agencies consolidate around the world and deals become increasingly based on volume and the ability to service clients in dozens of markets.

Key speeches from Michael Jackson, chief executive of Channel 4, and David Elstein, chief executive of Channel 5, on the second day of the conference will address the continuing role of terrestrial TV and how it can continue to attract large audiences.

There will also be presentations on advertiser-supplied programming, programme sponsorship and how to make the most of the TV ad break through creativity.

A particularly contentious issue which seems likely to emerge is the growing commercialisation of the BBC. Many media owners and advertisers watch with increasing alarm as the Corporation increases its marketing resources to aggressively promote a product which viewers have already paid for.

Sue Farr, director for marketing and communications at the BBC, will find herself walking into the lion’s den when she gives her speech, assessing the impact of the multichannel age on TV programming and marketing.

Andrew Brown, director-general of the Advertising Association, sees the conference as an opportunity to throw some light on the Government’s view of the commercial broadcasting sector and its attitudes to advertising.

A half-hour interview of Culture Secretary Chris Smith, conducted by Brown, has been videoed, for screening at TV Barcelona. Brown aims to probe Labour’s commitment to the advertising business, and its views on European pressures to legislate on issues such as alcohol advertising, and advertising to children. This is particularly pertinent this year, with the UK holding the presidency of the European Union.

Aside from the specific conference debates, the three days outside the UK gives advertisers the chance to step back from their daily pressures.

As Phil Gullen, managing director of Carat Insight, says: “It’s a good chance to take a reality check. These days a lot of clients don’t have the time to see anyone outside their business other than their agencies.

“They rarely meet a media owner or other advertisers. It gives them the real chance to get a different perspective.”

It is this opportunity to devote three days to TV and also the chance to glean inside information and new ideas over drinks or meals in Barcelona’s restaurants that is also key to the continuing attraction of the conference.

If delegates are willing to work hard as well as play hard, their three day trip to Spain will not be in vain.

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