Advertisers left short of friends

ITV’s barely concealed joy, after losing the DTT repitch, is entirely understandable. Apart from keeping the names of Charles Allen, Steve Morrison and Michael Green out of the newspapers – where they have been enjoying a notoriety little short of Andersen’s these past few months – the ITC’s decision brings the whole sorry episode to a satisfying ‘closure’. The grief caused to corporate reputations, balance sheets and the ITV brand has been incalculable, as indeed has the sheer waste of management time on the ITV Digital adventure.

So advertisers can applaud the emergence of a ‘back to basics’ strategy at ITV. For too long, they could argue, they have been unwilling, second-class passengers on the RMS Titanic. They can now justifiably expect greater management focus – indeed, any stable management team at ITV Network would be a start – and a willingness to tackle declining ratings and the Great Satan, Greg Dyke, head on.

They will be less satisfied as they stare further into the future. For, with the re-awarding of the digital multiplexes, the UK TV kaleidoscope has stopped turning – and the pattern which emerges is not a pretty one for commercial television. Though it’s fashionable to suggest the BBC has bitten off more than it can chew with the assumption of the DTT licences, this may prove to be wishful thinking.

Granted, DTT is an area of pretty low interest among the 15 million households that still cling to analogue, and there is no killer application in sight which might quickly make them change their mind. But the persistent power of persuasion should not be underestimated. The BBC has already committed itself to an unprecedented publicity campaign in the autumn. Ah, you may say, we’ve been here before with ONdigital and, later, the Monkey, and look what that achieved. But there are differences this time round: the cost of access has been lowered to an attractive level – about £99 – and there are no hidden subscription charges. Furthermore, the BBC will be abetted by consortium partner BSkyB, with its proven customer management and marketing skills. The defection from analogue to DTT doesn’t have to be seismic, just steady, for the BBC to succeed, and to guarantee continuing Government support. Which should, incidentally, ensure Dyke has little trouble in framing the next set of Charter requirements pretty much to his liking.

So what might happen to the commercial sector? The key word is ‘squeezed’. At the moment, Channel 4 seems to be taking the brunt, with the effective closure of FilmFour and E4’s future uncertain. In time, however, the problem will become a mainstream one for advertisers. The present commercial channels will be a diluted offering within a much broader free-to-air matrix, essentially controlled by the BBC. Moreover, whatever subscription services may emerge over time (the BBC consortium has not set its face against these) are likely to be the province of BSkyB – not the most advertiser-dependent of networks.

Alas for ISBA, the case for a rapidly consolidated ITV is pretty overwhelming, though whether it deserves advertiser support is quite another issue.

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