Spring is in the air for ITV chiefs

News that TV – and even ITV’s – revenues are about to bounce back for the first time in more than a year should bring a breath of spring to Prague, this year’s venue for the annual TV conference hosted by Marketing Week.

All constituencies present at the event – advertisers and agency folk, as well as the media owners – are sick of the chronic malaise afflicting commercial television and desperate for some portent, however illusory, of imminent recovery.

So dire is the situation that – wait for it – they are prepared to agree on something. Petty differences must be put aside to allow TV to be promoted as a medium.

Naturally enough, there are reasons for doubting the strength of this consensual goodwill. After all, it springs from very different sources. What advertisers mean by a stronger medium is more compelling programmes, within a competitive commercial matrix that assures them better value for money. That end is not likely to be served by a “rogue” BBC, which has been very effective recently at holding the ITV flagship below the waterline in the ratings battle. On this at least, they’ll be completely in agreement with ITV executives. Where they’ll fall out is over Granada and Carlton’s pet solution to the problem. Yes, there will be cost savings if the two leading ITV companies merge, but will that money find its way into better programme content, or will most of it end up lining shareholders’ pockets?

More problematic still is what will happen to media sales. The recently floated suggestion of two sales houses, post merger – one tied, one supposedly ‘independent’ – has met with equal incredulity among media buyers and advertisers. Isn’t this just a means of masking an unacceptable concentration of market power? Doesn’t a creeper grow over every Chinese wall?

But let’s dismiss for a moment the inevitability of a merger and its ramifications with a Canute-like shrug of the shoulders. Other contentious issues remain high on the agenda. If advertisers are to be dissuaded from using alternative media, such as radio and posters, TV owners must improve their own collective offer. Take interactive TV for instance or – rather – don’t. Even pioneer adopters such as Woolworth have turned their back on it. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that TV companies must bear responsibility for this. Two years of wrangling over a common platform have failed to achieve a meaningful result.

And then there’s digital terrestrial TV. To claim, as the commercial sector has, that launching BBC3 would seriously damage its interests gloriously misses the point that not many people seem to want to tune into the platform anyway. Ah, say the optimists, but wait until the &£99.99 free-to-air set-top digital decoder comes on stream next month; then we’ll see.

There are several problems with this line of reasoning. One is that a viable source of promotional funding is far from evident. Another, suggests some recent Starcom Motive research, is that the majority of those not already converted to the magic of digital TV remain unenthusiastic. And finally, there is the increasingly public desperation of ITV Digital, the platform mainstay, which cannot be best calculated to encourage would-be viewers in their droves.

So, a touch of frost in that Prague spring air, which should help to make the debate that bit sharper.

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