Breath of fresh air at Barcelona

Sometimes it takes a particular event to crystallise changes happening all around us. The TV Barcelona conference last week was one of those occasions.

Symbolically, ITV and its concerns, which have traditionally formed the backbone of these conferences (hitherto held in Monte Carlo) found themselves rescheduled to the second day of the event – coincidentally Friday 13.

For the first time in living memory ‘station average price’ was off the menu. Instead we had a number of impressive speakers sketching the new and increasingly competitive macro-environment with which ITV must nowadays contend. Nigel Walmsley, a director of British Digital Broadcasting, compellingly mapped out the new digital landscape. Compellingly, as he managed to persuade his audience that the terrestrial digital format will be all but universal within the next ten years; it’s not a revolution that might happen, but one that must happen because the Government will promote it by switching off analogue signals. All existing terrestrial channels are to transfer to the new format. But of more significance is the fact that the imminent DTT multiplexes will carry numerous new free-to-view channels, whose appeal may retard cable and satellite penetration.

The changes were also rung by Sue Farr, director of marketing and communications at the BBC. The fact that the BBC can now refer to itself as a ‘trusted brand’, and persuade the Dalai Lama to endorse that brand in its 75th anniversary trailers, is a measure of its growing potency.

But the squeeze on viewers represented by a resurgent BBC is by no means the only threat facing the commercial channels. Martin Sorrell, chief executive of WPP Group, emphasised the increasing exasperation of global advertisers with rampant media cost inflation and their determination to pursue more cost-effective avenues.

Not surprisingly, this found a ready echo among advertisers. Jonathan Mindell of Going Places sounded a particularly chilling note when he disclosed that Going Places had pulled TV advertising since the beginning of the year – and bookings were none the worse for it.

However, the new top ITV team did not take the flak lying down. When Toyota marketing director Mike Moran told ITV chief executive Richard Eyre he was ‘pissed off’ with ITV’s intransigence on extra minutage, Eyre stood his ground robustly. ‘I hear what you’re saying,’ he riposted, ‘But you’re not listening to me.’ Extra minutage, he said, would simply debase the currency. The only way forward was through more investment in programmes and better promotions.

Long live TV inflation, then. For a moment we could have been back in Monte Carlo. As Christine Walker, newly resurrected as a founder of Walker Media, remarked: ‘I’ve come back after a year of gardening leave and I can’t believe we’re still having the same conversations. What we have here is an array of ostrich options.’

Media news, page 14; Media analysis, page 16

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