When ITV became the first media company to publish performance targets, chief executive Richard Eyre was setting himself up to fail.
And fail he probably will. After a dire August and a shaky start to the autumn schedule, it seems highly likely that ITV will not meet this year’s audience share target unless the last quarter shows a marked improvement.
Eyre is aiming for a 38 per cent peaktime audience share this year, rising to 39 per cent next year and 40 per cent in 2000. But he might rue the day he opted for those particular markers. He could have declared all-time share targets instead. He could have set ITV’s standards against the performance of the BBC. Or, of course, he could have just kept quiet.
But Eyre opted for this very pure evaluation of ITV using a fairly tight definition of peak time – between 7pm and 10.30pm, when 15 per cent of broadcast hours deliver 42 per cent of viewing.
He says bluntly: “The advertisers were saying if you improve all-time targets but not peak, we will be pretty pissed off.
“I needed to try to arrest what I thought was a sense that I had come in to manage the decline of ITV in as stylish a way as possible. That wasn’t my brief.”
Yet the trouble with setting specific targets is that if they are not met this year, ITV’s achievements so far will be disguised. Significantly, ITV is holding its own in peaktime against BBC1, although it is continuing to lose viewers to commercial rivals.
That may be bad news for ITV as a business, but for advertisers it represents a desirable growth of the size of the commercial cake (or at least it shows that the cake is not getting any smaller).
One TV buyer says: “Our main concern was not how ITV was performing against other commercial rivals. It was that it was suffering against the BBC, primarily BBC1.
“If ITV’s audience goes down ten per cent, but it goes up against BBC1 by ten per cent, that’s great.”
The point being that fewer people are watching public service TV.
Since the World Cup this summer, the commercial channels have consistently increased their impacts – number of people watching its advertisements. Channel 5 has shown particular growth, with more homes able to receive the channel and with better reception. Sales director Nick Milligan says: “ITV is losing share in all-day parts, not just peak. This is not because its offering is any worse than it used to be, it’s a function of competition and choice.”
Everything looked rosy for ITV until the end of July. The Network Centre had just unveiled its autumn schedule to widespread praise. David Liddiment, ITV director of programmes, pointed out how well the channel had performed: “Before we rush to the conclusion that it’s simply the windfall of the World Cup, we should bear in mind that in three of the four weeks leading up to, and the two weeks following, the World Cup we were again ahead of the previous year.”
But these successes were followed by a disastrous August. Peaktime audience share dropped from 37 per cent to 35 per cent, while all-time share dropped two per cent to 29 per cent. If the dregs of the material left over from the previous ITV regime had to be used up to provide a clean slate for the autumn, August was the month for it. And it showed. Viewers went elsewhere, including sampling Channel 5.
This autumn’s programmes, which started last month, represent the first full season commissioned by ITV’s new team at the Network Centre. If anything underperforms from now on, there is no one else to blame. Unfortunately parts of the peaktime schedule have not got off to a flying start, although the viewer profile has improved.
Ian Lewis, managing partner at Zenith Media, says: “Some new programmes do take a while to build. They changed an awful lot at once.”
The programmes for the Saturday night line-up in September for example – Gladiators, The Moment of Truth, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Motorway Life and London’s Burning – were all new except for Gladiators.
Meanwhile, BBC1’s scheduling has been very aggressive. On Saturday nights it launched new series of Casualty, Airport and the X-Files. On the first Saturday and Sunday of September, Casualty kicked off with a two-part special, which was followed by a one-hour special of EastEnders the Sunday after that, and then a new series of Ballykissangel pulled forward from the winter schedule into autumn. These were all battling it out with ITV’s new series of Heartbeat.
Lewis says: “We are at a point when British television is so competitive that every channel has to improve with each new season just to stand still.”
Eyre says that only seven turbulent weeks into the new-look autumn schedule after a decline of 15 per cent in the past five years, it is too soon to panic.
“We’ve always said if it didn’t go right for us on day one we are not going to panic and go back to the old ways. We are still focused on delivering those targets. I don’t feel I am looking at an hourglass in front of me with the sand running out.”
ITV’s audience targets were discussed and decided last year before the plans to move News at Ten were on the table. In fact, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising proposed increasing the targets if News at Ten was scrapped because it would have given ITV a greater chance of holding onto viewers throughout the evening with uninterrupted films and long dramas.
It now looks as though ITV will only meet its original targets if News at Ten moves.