Don’t pull the plug on TV advertising just yet

The arrival of digital TV, Sky+ and PVRs has made terrestrial TV less attractive to advertisers, but the prognosis that it is dying is premature, says Ged Harris

There are 386 television channels available to multi-channel viewers, whose numbers are swelling fast – digital TV is now in more homes than the internet. Add to this the increasing sophistication of interactive TV and a more competitive BBC, along with video on demand and personal video recorders (PVRs), and it appears it will be difficult for media planners to justify using conventional TV in the future.

Indeed, if you’d examined the performance of terrestrial TV, particularly ITV1, up to the start of this year, you might have agreed with the forecasts of doom and gloom.

It can’t be denied that ITV1 has had a hard time: its revenues have fallen since 2000 and its share of viewers is apparently in continuous decline. The BBC has been similarly affected. Between 1998 and 2000 the BBC’s audience share fell 11 per cent in contrast with a fall of 24 per cent for ITV1. On the other hand, Channel 4 has maintained it audience share and Five has continued to increase its share year on year.

The reality is that TV, particularly ITV, isn’t dying. It’s merely on the sick list. Signs that ITV1’s ability to deliver mass commercial audiences isn’t at an end have become apparent in the past ten months. A rise in mass-market programmes, such as Martin Bashir’s interview with Michael Jackson, is one. The Carlton/Granada merger finally being given the go-ahead is another. The large savings generated from having one ITV – estimated to be £55m – will be reinvested in the programmes department. Meanwhile, Channel 4 continues to develop innovative shows, such as Wife Swap, that attract high viewing figures.

Another encouraging sign is that multi- channel penetration is now high enough to offer advertisers mass audiences outside terrestrial TV. The England versus Turkey European qualifier on Sky, for example, delivered a multi-channel record audience of 3.9 million.

But despite these promising signs, we cannot ignore the threats to TV audiences over the next few years. Staggercast transmission, which allows viewers to access programmes whenever they like, will, it is feared, cut audience delivery by making viewers’ usual “appointment to view” obsolete. The effect so far, however, has been to make multi-channel film premiers less exclusive than they had previously been, devaluing Sky’s movie offering.

PVRs could also mark the end of TV as an advertising medium, though their take-up has not yet lived up to analysts’ forecasts.

But the main influence on viewing figures is programme quality. Quality is recognised by viewers and if channels provide them, TV will achieve the audience levels that have made it so valuable to advertisers.

There is no doubt that TV will have to adapt to advances in technology and changes in the market, but by investing in programmes, intelligent scheduling and marketing, combined with the imbedded British culture of “watching the box”, there is hope that mass TV audiences are here to stay.

Ged Harris is a planner/buyer at BJK&E Media

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