Having seen off his rivals within ITV, strengthened the bottom line and set up ventures with the BBC and NTL, Charles Allen is in a powerful position – but he’ll need to mollify his ultimate paymasters
Was ITV trying a little too hard to woo advertisers at its 50th anniversary jamboree last week? Every speaker at the Guildhall dinner – Sir Trevor McDonald, Charles Allen, Tessa Jowell and Ant and Dec – praised the wonderful support ITV had received from its advertisers.
Not only had they funded all its public service programming, but their commercials had brought almost as much sunshine and joy to viewers as the programmes.
A litany of slogans was recited, from “tingling fresh” to “work, rest and play” and “hand-built by robots” – and plenty of advertiser and agency bosses were there to enjoy the references. Yet several questioned the weight of corporate thanks from the platform.
Was it designed to compensate for the absence of Mick Desmond and Graham Duff – the men who spearheaded ITV’s relationship with advertisers, until their surprise departures last month? Neither has a job to go to, and advertisers have reacted unfavourably to the double whammy, as they have made clear in <I>Marketing Week</I>. Meanwhile, the man who precipitated the departures – Charles Allen, ITV’s chief executive – was lauded to the Guildhall ceiling by Culture Secretary Jowell. She praised him not just for his role in securing the mergers that have resulted in – to all intents and purposes – a single ITV company, but in laying on the splendid Commonwealth Games in Manchester and helping win the 2012 Olympics for London.
With Jowell likely to remain culture secretary for a while to come, Allen finds himself in a uniquely strong position – which he has cemented during the anniversary celebrations.
Last month, he hosted the 50th anniversary party for ITN and ITV News at the Royal Opera House, the night before giving Desmond his marching orders and promoting Simon Shaps in a management upheaval. He announced a 60 per cent increase in ITV’s profits, a move into broadband and mobile services, and the launch dates for ITV4 and the ITV kids’ channel. He also managed to chair the Royal Television Society Cambridge Convention, where he appeared supremely relaxed and confident, during a panel session in which BSkyB’s James Murdoch was reported to be tense and tetchy.
Allen has also just linked up with two key rivals in significant ventures that will challenge BSkyB.With the BBC, he has announced plans to launch a free digital satellite service to build on the success of the Freeview terrestrial system. Viewers will be able to buy a box and dish in the high street, allowing them to watch dozens of digital channels that are broadcast free to air and unencrypted.
With NTL, he has just launched an initiative to bid for the rights to English Premier League football. He and Simon Duffy, NTL’s chief executive, have written jointly to the 20 club chairmen, supporting a European Commission proposal to stop any TV company showing more than half the Premiership matches live. They are offering to guarantee the price currently paid by Sky for 50 per cent of the matches, so the league wouldn’t lose money. Some matches would be shown on free-to-air ITV channels, with most being screened on a new subscription channel to be set up by NTL.Allen has positioned himself right at the centre of the media-political web at a significant time.
NTL is seeking official approval for its long-awaited merger with Telewest. The BBC is seeking government approval for a licence fee increase 2.3 per cent above inflation. And Allen himself has called for a “radical rethink” of European media regulation, including a lifting of the ban on product placement, soon to be considered by Ofcom.
Little wonder that many at the Guildhall dinner commented on the length and warmth of the culture secretary’s tribute to his achievements. For the first time in its 50-year history, ITV has a supremo able to marshal the entire resources of the UK’s biggest commercial TV company, instead of a bunch of bickering barons more interested in doing each other down than fighting the opposition.
Speaking to the Broadcasting Press Guild last month, Allen was engagingly frank. He observed that as ITV’s succession of mergers reached its end-game, the three barons left in the ring – Carlton’s Michael Green, Meridian’s Clive Hollick, and Allen himself from Granada – all had the same ambition: to reduce their rivals’ share prices so they could take them over, a strategy hardly likely to produce a strong ITV schedule.
Allen was the last man standing – after the City rejected Green as ITV chairman, in favour of a less high-profile banker. Since then, he has been cutting costs, lobbying the Government to reduce ITV’s licence payments and programme obligations and shoring up the company’s defences against a possible takeover. City observers believe he has succeeded on all counts – which may explain why he now seems to be flexing his muscles.
One casualty of the past month, though, has been ITV’s relationship with its advertisers – and it will take more than the warm words at the Guildhall to rebuild it.