Why ITV will need more than ‘millionaires’ to cement revival

So the pendulum has swung again, with a vengeance. ITV is not merely in the ascendant, but rampant. The removal of News at Ten has sliced open the evening schedule even more effectively than the network hoped and its rivals feared.

Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? has an aura of impregnability not seen since Darling Buds of May raced to the top of the ratings and stayed there for six weeks. Films such as Goldeneye and dramas like Kavanagh QC have shown what a clear run through the 10pm barrier can achieve – a 47.2 per cent peaktime share in the first week without News at Ten. And Wonderful You has demonstrated that ITV can produce original material specifically for the new 10pm slot. Even the failure of the Carsey-Werner sitcom Days Like These has served merely to show that the new ITV can afford to experiment and it’s no disaster if some things do go wrong.

Yet despite the vindication of Richard Eyre and David Liddiment’s revival strategy, intriguing questions are already emerging.

What does the Independent Television Commission think of the new 10pm news headlines – which it insisted on as part of the price for dropping News at Ten? At present they seem more like a trailer for the 11pm bulletin.

Is the ITV Nightly News really meant to be only 15 minutes long? It certainly moves at a gallop.

And how will Tonight – the new, hour-long Trevor McDonald current affairs programme – fare in the 10pm slot? For despite the array of films, dramas and entertainment shows ITV has unveiled for the spring and summer, one legacy of News at Ten remains. Ten o’clock is fixed in viewers’ minds as a time for channel-switching, and all ITV’s rivals have long targeted this slot for some of their strongest material. Little wonder that ITV executives are trying to run longer programmes through the 10 o’clock junction where possible.

Now that ITV is fighting back, Tonight – heir to World In Action and This Week – is likely to face the greatest flak from other channels. And the ITC, MPs and others will be looking to Tonight – and the ITV documentaries – to show serious factual programming has not been jettisoned in the race for ratings.

Another intriguing question was raised at TV Barcelona, when Eyre announced Goldeneye’s 52 per cent share to a delighted audience of advertisers and agencies. A Flextech executive asked what share it took in multichannel homes. Eyre didn’t have the figure to hand – but the implication of the question was clear and will not have been lost on the ITV team.

For however successful its revival, the long-term share trends are against ITV and the other terrestrials. Those trends are demonstrated in the latest edition of The TARis UK Television and Video Yearbook, just published by Taylor Nelson Sofres, complete with an array of BARB-based charts and statistics for 1998.

It shows 28 per cent of homes now have cable or satellite channels, which helped push up the non-terrestrials’ share of total viewing to 12.9 per cent in 1998, compared with only 6.8 per cent in 1994. Of course, viewers in multichannel homes spend more time watching terrestrial TV than non-terrestrial, and the terrestrials’ share rose slightly last year for the first time in five years – to 62.8 per cent, compared with 62.1 in 1997. But that is small comfort given that the number of multichannel homes will continue to rise inexorably, until – if the Government gets its digital way – every home has multichannel TV.

This puts ITV’s revival into perspective. In multichannel homes, the Yearbook shows, ITV’s share has fallen from 30.2 per cent in 1994 to 24.5 last year. The two BBC channels fared less badly, thanks to an increase in BBC2’s share: their combined share dropped from 30.7 per cent in 1994 to 28.2 last year. Even if we assume that ITV performed better in peaktime, the omens are not good. For the audience of the future is growing up in multichannel homes. As last week’s LSE report on “the bedroom media culture” showed, UK children spend more time watching TV and playing computer games than those in other European countries. Two-thirds have TVs in their bedrooms and 40 per cent have multichannel TV.

Last year, according to TARis, children overall devoted 22.2 per cent of their viewing to cable and satellite channels – double the amount in 1994. In multichannel homes, the figure by definition must be higher. And since cable and satellite’s share of total viewing last year was “only” 12.9 per cent, children are spending a much higher proportion of their viewing with the new channels than adults are.

Not that ITV is unprepared for the multichannel future. At TV Barcelona I was struck by some of the programming being developed by companies such as Two-Way TV and, in particular, its use of multiple choice questions that viewers could answer at home through the keypad on their remote control handset.

The format – four questions, laid out at the bottom of the screen – seemed familiar. And then it struck me. ITV’s blitz machine, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, is already likely to embrace the interactive age by getting viewers to take part. Instead of asking just the studio audience for help in answering a question, contestants will be able to consult the country.

Over time, as more people get digital TV, ITV will be able to select potential contestants through the keypad. And, of course, viewers will pay for the privilege.

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