Early signs that ITV’s blighted episode is coming to a close

With the right people in the top roles, ITV is setting a promising scene for comeback, but the commercial picture isn’t quite complete yet

Throughout my career I have always had a clear view of ITV, and in common with many TV buyers, clients and observers, that view has been almost universally negative. Hardly surprising given that ITV has lost 25% audience share over the past decade and consistently displayed the worst attributes of a monopoly supplier. But now I find myself, Vicky Pollard-like, answering the question “has ITV turned the corner” with “Yes but no but yes but….” In short maybe.

ITV has turned the corner in terms of outlook, for by putting the right people – people with showbusiness at their heart and who understand that a brand must have a clearly defined personality – optimism has returned. Michael Grade was the perfect choice to lead the company with his bucket-loads of talent, acumen, passion and personality. His recent hiring of Dawn Airey was textbook. She, more than any other TV executive I know, inspires those around her and blends sound talent-spotting with a firm and honest delivery of customer (and here I mean the advertiser) service.

I feel sure that if Airey delivers increased revenues and profit in the production division, both domestically and internationally (and she will), Grade will dilute his role as executive chairman and give Airey the combined role of delivering against the two key stakeholders – viewers and advertisers – to the satisfaction of the City.

Assuming that Airey delivers clever, innovative, modern and popular content to Simon Shaps’s network, the viewer is bound to re-engage, which in turn will provide the platform for advertiser re-engagement.

I have always believed that ITV should represent popular mass entertainment: the channel of the people – if you will, The Sun and The Daily Mail of the airwaves. And as long as those at the broadcaster believe in this tenet and don’t try to emulate Channel 4 (just look at the plunging young audience levels of the current Big Brother series) they will deliver large numbers of eyeballs with their attached purses and wallets.

Admittedly this may not win them big fans among a very young media-buying fraternity who, in my view, are wrongly encouraged to value profile above volume by the media auditors’ tired evaluation models. ITV’s premium will be maintained and perhaps stretched by regularly bringing in big numbers. Britain’s Got Talent is its most recent success, averaging 11 million viewers and peaking at 13.5 million for the final. And while we’re talking numbers, this 13.5 million knocked Big Brother’s 3.6 million viewers into a cocked hat.

So the early signs of programming success – Kingdom Talk to Me and the Jane Austen season – are promising but far from conclusive.

The biggest “no but” on ITV’s turning the corner lies in its commercial application. I think it is deeply ironic that ITV chief executive Charles Allen terminated head of broadcasting Mick Desmond’s tenure – broadly because he felt he lacked commercial application while accepting he was the advertisers’ friendly face – to replace him with Ian McCullough who has commercial acumen but found advertiser engagement so difficult. McCullough, tellingly, was more likely to lobby for my support to abolish CRR (in his dreams!) than find out about how ITV could improve an advertiser’s campaign.

Desmond has put McCullough and the media industry out of their collective misery but the post remains open. There have been attempts to fix the shop window but at heart ITV cannot bring itself to say thank you to big advertiser investors, either by volume or by share. In a market haemorrhaging revenue it still indiscriminately tries to penalise late money heavily.

ITV digital still isn’t being traded as an important and lucrative part of the multi-channel platform opportunity, but as just a bolt-on to the ITV1 deal. ITV2 and 3 are the top performing digital channels so far in 2007, though this result has been achieved by default, with little focused help commercially or editorially.

And while I’m on my commercial soapbox, ITV’s internet opportunity is being squandered: a majority of its inventory is being warehoused via the digital networks at a significant discount to their direct sale pricing structure.

If I were Grade, either I would make it clear that ITV director John Cresswell is leading the charge or I’d bring in Andy Barnes from C4 to support him. Barnes has proven credentials with media buyers and advertisers alike. He’s in tune with the modern need for multi-platform solutions and will undoubtedly be loyal to Grade’s crusade, having worked for him at C4. To boot, the turnaround opportunity at ITV, in my view, beats hands down the misguided strategy Messer’s Johnson and Duncan are pursuing at C4.

Christine Walker is chairman of Walker Media

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