ITV Web strategy lacks coherence

ITV is revamping its online strategy to compete with the BBC. But can it subsume its disparate brands under a coherent Website?

While the BBC was relaunching its commercial Web arm beeb.com last week, ITV was taking a smaller, yet no less significant step to muscle in on the Internet revolution.

The appointment of Alex Hughes, head of business development at Website development consultancy Deep End, as ITV’s new media manager (MW last week), indicates it is at last preparing to do battle with its rival beyond the confines of television.

The new appointment is part of plans to translate ITV’s broadcast strength into online revenue, but it is a strategy that begins, as one observer has it, on far from the cleanest sheets of paper.

The observer says: “How can ITV manage its fundamentally regional history in a fundamentally non-regional environment? It’s a huge challenge, but an interesting one.”

An “interesting” challenge is presumably not what Hughes had in mind when ITV head of marketing Sam Carter, to whom he will report, presented him with the task of redefining the Web strategy of the UK’s largest commercial TV network.

But some of ITV’s regional members fear that the network’s disparate structure will hinder their efforts to catch up with, let alone overtake, the BBC as online leader.

Peter Rook, managing director of Carlton Online, admits: “If we all [the regional broadcasters] work together, we can be bigger than the BBC. But the ITV companies have no agreement to come together with a single plan.”

Many throughout the sector concur with Rook’s point. Media buyers say sites such as Coronation Street and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire owned by Granada and Carlton respectively, build well on already powerful brands.

But to put such brands through a process of strategy revision – unavoidable if they are to be integrated into a new parent ITV Website – could jeopardise their success. As would be expected, Granada and Carlton are loathe to give up their own visible ownership on the brands.

Rook says: “Sometimes Peak Practice is up on the ITV Website, sometimes it isn’t. There should be a clear relationship between ITV, us and the programmes – but it has been difficult to achieve.”

Efforts to construct a unified Web strategy are hindered further by regulators. The Independent Television Commission (ITC) launches a consultation paper on ITV’s online development before the end of the year. The ITC is unable to comment on ITV strategy prior to the launch of the consultation – thus slowing ITV’s Web development in a sector moving at an exponential rate.

Ewan Adams, media planner at the Media Edge, says: “The BBC is making big plays at the moment, something which ITV is not doing. It has a higher share of audience figures and could be making the same moves, but it doesn’t have anything to launch yet.”

A current look at the ITV Website, says Adams, reveals how much potential remains to be unlocked.

“ITV is a portal for its TV brands but it is just a list. There is no interactivity and no clear strategy. Its individual programmes at the moment are stronger than the ITV brand, which is the converse to Channel 4’s and the BBC’s strategy.”

Most observers are hoping ITV will create a parent portal, similar to BBC Online, to unify the network’s TV brands and maximise ad revenues and cross-media deals.

But others warn that the BBC, despite its success, has misjudged the future of the Net, and to follow it would be a mistake.

Noah Yasskin, analyst at Internet research company Jupiter Communications, says: “If success in ITV’s terms is to get the biggest audience, then the BBC is successful. But we think it would be better to own consumer categories such as sport, news or finance. Portals have all the audiences and will eventually begin to compete in these categories as well.”

Yasskin suggests broadcasters such as ITV should set their stalls out on specific categories and provide content for portals such as Excite and Yahoo!.

In the short term, ITV has undoubted potential to compete with BBC Online. Carter and Hughes, however, should not expect it to be an easy ride.

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