BARB shows the hill ITV must climb before it scales new peak

When ITV’s new management announced its intention to halt the long-term decline in the network’s peaktime ratings, it was acclaimed as a bold statement. Just how bold can be seen from the latest monthly BARB figures.

In March last year, the “new” TV channels – Channel 5 and the cable and satellite services – had a 12 per cent share of the TV audience. In March this year, their combined share was 17 per cent.

Inexorably, the pattern of TV viewing is changing, with audiences shifting from the “old” mass channels of ITV and BBC1 to the new ones. The change is spelt out, all too clearly for the old channels’ comfort, in the 1998 UK Television Yearbook, just published by Taylor Nelson AGB, the BARB research contractor. Using its “Taris” ratings analyser, it charts in all manner of ways the seismic movements in the TV landscape.

In 1992, ITV had a 40.8 per cent share of viewing. Last year, it was 32.9. BBC1’s share in the same period is down from 33.7 per cent to 30.8. By contrast, “other” channels (ie cable and satellite) have seen their share grow from 4.9 per cent to 11.8.

The biggest shift of all is among the viewers of the future – children.

In 1997, almost 21 per cent of children’s viewing was of cable and satellite channels – up from 16.6 per cent in 1996. A further 2.1 per cent was to C5, giving the new channels a combined share of 23 per cent. Yet, in 1992, their share of the children’s audience was just 8.4 per cent.

The biggest loser in the battle for children’s viewing has been ITV – or, to be strictly accurate, Channel 3, since the ITV Network Centre does not regard GMTV as one of its own.

In 1992 , C3 had 40.7 per cent of the children’s audience. Last year, its share was 28.3 per cent – a drop of almost a third in five years.

But, intriguingly, the damage has not been done only by the new channels. One “old” channel, BBC2, has comprehensively bucked the trend – boosting its share of the children’s audience from 7.8 per cent in 1992 to 12.1 per cent last year. That has helped its overall viewing share – up from 10.5 per cent in 1992 to 11.6 per cent last year. BBC2 even increased its share of viewing in cable and satellite homes, a remarkable feat for an old channel – given that even Sky One, UK Gold and the Sky Movies channels have seen their shares go down as newer channels have come on air.

The key to BBC2’s success has been breakfast time, where there has been a huge shift in viewing over the past five years – as the old channels have battled to counter the rise of the new. The Taris UK Television Yearbook spells it out:

“At breakfast, BBC2 enjoyed a substantial jump for the second year running – up from 4.4 per cent in 1995 to 14.1 per cent in 1997, thanks to the scheduling of children’s programming at that time of day. The big loser was its minority channel rival, Channel 4, which took a tumble from 20.2 per cent in 1995 to 11.5 per cent in 1997, charting the decline of The Big Breakfast.

“GMTV’s figure of 34.2 per cent was its worst ever – down from the 50 per cent share being taken by its predecessor in 1992. Satellite took a further stride forward with 15 per cent, up from 13.6 per cent, while C5 did not really contest the daypart and took just 1.5 per cent.”

For the ITV Network Centre, the breakfast battle is immaterial. Its own battleground is peaktime, and here again the Yearbook spells out the challenge. In 1994, ITV had a 43.6 per cent share of individuals in peaktime, slightly up on its 1992 performance. Since then, it has fallen rapidly – to 41.5 per cent in 1995, to 39.4 per cent in 1996 and 37.7 per cent in 1997.

Its stated aim is to get back to 38 per cent in 1998 and to build from there – and it has just announced that it is on target. Richard Eyre, ITV’s chief executive, says that during the first four months of 1998, the network achieved an average share of just over 38 per cent.

ITV’s programme strengths are spelled out clearly in the list of its top 40 programmes for 1997. It is headed by six drama series – Heartbeat, A Touch of Frost, Coronation Street, Emmerdale, The Bill and London’s Burning, with only It’ll Be Alright on The Night 8 breaking drama’s total dominance. Twenty of its top 30 programmes were dramas.

By contrast, C5 is very much a “new” channel in that its top 40, like that for cable and satellite, is dominated by football and films. Its biggest audience was for the World Cup qualifier between England and Poland and four other matches reached its top ten, while no fewer than 27 of its top 40 programmes were films. Speed was its biggest, followed by Mrs Doubtfire.

Another World Cup match – England v Italy – topped the cable and satellite chart in 1997. But given BSkyB and the Premier League are looking to pay-per-view as the revenue stream of the future, the Yearbook’s charts suggest caution should be the watchword.

Only 13 satellite sports programmes got an audience of more than 1 million during the year, and these included review programmes, “Grass Roots Rugby” and basketball. Only a handful of football matches made it, and these included key games in the World Cup, FA Cup and Coca-Cola Cup.

Though viewing is shifting to the new channels, easily the biggest audiences remain on the old ones. And while viewing is increasingly fragmenting, 1997’s biggest audience by far was for a single, shared experience.

A special analysis of the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales shows that, at its peak, it was watched by no fewer than 33 million people.

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