Can ITV1 build its audience figures?

ITV1 is securing big audiences, but many question the validity of its viewing figures and the channel’s ability to sustain share.

The main topic of conversation in many offices up and down the country last week was Martin Bashir’s controversial interview with Michael Jackson. The Tonight special Living with Michael Jackson attracted up to 15 million viewers to ITV1 last Monday evening.

The show is not the only mass-audience success that ITV1 has produced in recent months. In January the launch of The Royal, a Heartbeat spin-off, landed a debut audience of 11.3 million and a 41 per cent share. Meanwhile Coronation Street’s recent “killer” storyline has attracted the soap an average audience of about 13.9 million.

ITV1 has even made some headway in securing the 16to 34-year-old age group with Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway. So far this year the show has delivered an average audience of about 7.3 million.

For the first four weeks of 2003, ITV1 increased its audience by 11 per cent in “all-time” viewing hours and by 13 per cent at peak-time against the same period last year (ITV Network Centre).

ITV1’s peak-time share for January was 33.3 per cent, a 1.2 share point increase on the same month last year, while BBC1’s and BBC2’s share fell, according to the latest BARB figures supplied by ITV Network Centre. Adult impacts for ITV rose 14 per cent year on year in January, and young and upmarket audiences are also on the rise, with the 16 to 34 sector up 17.1 per cent and ABC1 audiences up 21.9 per cent.

The figures look impressive, especially for a channel that has faced repeated criticism from advertisers and television buyers for its failure to stop the erosion of its audiences by multi-channel television. And for advertisers the figures mean that there will be price deflation of at least 13 per cent on ITV’s cost per thousand prices.

But TV buyers are reluctant to confirm that they mark a U-turn in the channel’s fortunes.

Media Planning Group head of broadcast Andrew Canter says: “The schedule this year has been so far ahead in terms of quality than at the beginning of last year.

“I would like to think ITV1 can maintain the quality of its current schedule, but it is in a situation where its penetration won’t grow any more, therefore there will be a continuing loss of share to the multi-channel market.”

There is another major factor that needs to be taken into account: the BARB panel.

A new panel was introduced in January 2002 and immediately threw up alarming double-digit falls in TV viewing patterns. ITV1 and Channel 4 were particularly badly affected. There were fears that members of the new panel were not recording their viewing habits correctly and, once adjustments were made to the panel in May, the data appeared to settle down.

TV buyers say that the figures for January, and indeed the next five months, should be treated with caution as year-on-year comparisons are being made with a period when the BARB panel was not operating properly, and ITV1 and Channel 4 had experienced huge falls in viewing among key audiences. The latest BARB figures also show that Channel 4, like ITV1, has seen a marked improvement in its performance. Commercial impacts for all adults have grown by 8.6 per cent and 21 per cent for 16to 34-year-olds.

Chris Ha

yward, head of TV buying at Zenith Optimedia, says that it is difficult to work out to what degree ITV1’s schedule has contributed to the figures because, due to the anomalies of last year, there was “inevitably going to be some improvement”.

Canter says: “The measurement effect won’t work itself out until later in the year. From now until April we should be seeing some impressive news. The real test will come in May when we will have a perspective on how sustainable this will be.”

A comparison with BARB figures for 2001 gives some indication of what has gone on, although it must be remembered that the panels are different. Commercial impacts for ITV1 for January 1 to January 28 2003 for all adults, when compared with the same period in 2002, are up 13 per cent but compared with 2001 they are down ten per cent (BARB). Similarly for young adults (16 to 34 years old), commercial impacts for 2003 are up 17 per cent compared with 2002, but down 18 per cent compared with 2001.

Andy Zonfrillo, broadcast buying director at MindShare, says: “ITV1 has had a positive start to 2003, audiences are up on 2002, but they are down against 2001 by some considerable way.”

But ITV joint managing director Mick Desmond claims that ITV1 should be judged on the improvement in its share of commercial impacts, an improvement that can be tracked back to the autumn.

ITV1 adult impact share has increased from 44 per cent during the autumn schedule to more than 46 per cent in January, according to BARB figures supplied by ITV Network Centre. It also claims an increase in impact share for young adults and ABC1 audiences over the same period.

Desmond says that since his appointment last May, moves have been made to understand why the channel was in decline. He says ITV1 has worked on ways to improve viewing schedules during the day, and on how to build audiences of key banker shows, such as The Bill and Coronation Street. ITV Network Centre and its suppliers have also been refocused around producing ratings winners that deliver younger and more upmarket audiences, he adds.

David Peters, broadcast director at Carat, welcomes ITV1’s increase in share, but adds: “There’s always going to be problems with daytime. The value of ITV1 is in peak-time. Frankly, what it offers in the day you can buy at half the price from Sky. The quality of the programming is no better than on any other satellite channel.”

Whether ITV1 will be able to sustain its burst of positive energy remains to be seen and advertisers will be watching closely to see whether the &£100m boost to its 2003 programming budget will help boost viewing figures.

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