Why ITV faces a new watershed

The timing could not have been better. Granada’s bloodless coup in buying United News & Media’s ITV franchises Meridian, Anglia and HTV was announced on the last Friday of July, just before media executives and marketers head off for their summer holidays.

By the time they return at the end of August, the stage will be set for the next, and ultimate, round of ITV consolidation. Within two to five years, Granada is set to become the sole proprietor of the listing vessel which is ITV.

Some believe that by the time this happens, ITV’s viewing may well be as low as 15 per cent following the ravages of the digital revolution and aggressive competition from Sky, Channel 4 and Channel 5.

But this year, the pain of ‘rationalisation’ – job cuts – will be felt in the airtime sales field, with the closure of United’s sales house, TSMS. Granada will hire most of the staff for its newly enlarged Granada Enterprises, but over 100 will find themselves searching for work.

This should not present them with too much of a problem in the buoyant media world, racked by skill shortages and opened up by the new media boom. It will give media agencies, which have lost so many staff to dot-coms, an important source of not-so-cheap labour.

Having TSMS on your CV will be no bad thing. The sales house, established in 1989 and taken over by United in the mid-Nineties, has always had one of the trickier jobs in airtime sales. While Granada and Carlton focus on the wealthy areas such as London, TSMS has had a hard sell on the Celtic fringes – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

It prides itself on innovation, such as the TVSpan research into the effects of TV advertising on sales of packaged goods.

But ITV can ill-afford to lose more talented staff. Consolidation is a defensive move to a tough situation – ITV’s inevitable decline. One media buyer says the network should do its utmost to hang on to the best of TSMS staff such as Jerry Hill and other senior executives.

ITV insiders say now that this stage of consolidation is done and almost dusted, the station can get on with its real job.

It will not be long before ITV finally announces its new Network Centre chief executive – tipped to be J Walter Thompson chief executive Stephen Carter, though ITV insists no decision has been taken.

Some might wonder whether Carter would be able to take the pace in the reputedly vicious atmosphere of ITV after the gentlemanly eccentricity of JWT. Others have shied away from the task.

Either way, by Christmas Eve, marketers will look back on 2000 as a watershed in their dealings with the UK’s largest television advertiser.

Either they will ruminate on their buying clout, which was severely weakened by the consolidation they tried so hard to prevent, and wonder what the new year holds, or they will sip a celebratory sherry and wonder what all the fuss was about.

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