Aggressive ITV schedule shows the fragility of its pole position

ITV knows it could come under real threat if its competitors get their act together, and is launching a pre-emptive attack. By Nick Higham. Nick Higham is BBC TV’s media correspondent

You could be forgiven for thinking ITV wanted to strangle Channel 5 at birth. First there was all that black propaganda about how badly the channel’s video retuning was going.

Then there was the week – which just happened to coincide with Channel 5’s launch – when the ITV schedule included five doses of Emmerdale (one an hour long) plus four of The Bill and several enticing movies.

Then came the bidding war for Hollywood movies, which saw ITV paying out a reported $70m (45m) for Universal Studios’ releases, but Channel 5 forced to pay even more – $142m (95m) almost the equivalent of an entire year’s programme budget – for Warner Brothers’.

Now comes the launch of the ITV spring and summer schedule, which includes a late-night comedy slot, just like Channel 5’s, and a week of programmes about the paranormal and other spooky goings-on, Into the Unknown, aimed at precisely those younger audiences likely to be attracted by much of the Channel 5 schedule.

Yet officially ITV isn’t competing – ITV’s network director, Marcus Plantin, says so. The Unknown week has “nothing to do with Channel 5”, he told journalists before last week’s launch – it’s merely a commercial objective to ensure that younger audiences find something to enjoy on ITV. “Our key objective is to steal share from the BBC.”

Up to a point, of course, he’s quite right. Where advertisers are concerned, it’s bad politics to give the impression that ITV is more interested in squashing its upstart rival than it is about winning viewers from non-commercial channels.

And the features of the ITV schedule which Plantin chose to emphasise last week are those in which it competes directly with the Beeb (and Sky in the case of sport), not with Channel 5.

He’s clearly delighted with the performance of Formula One, snatched a year ago from a dumbfounded BBC. A couple of years ago, ITV Sport looked as if it had reached the end of the road. Now, thanks to a willingness to spend money, it’s looking quite perky (Plantin calls this a “renaissance”, and a “galvanic change”).

The Brazilian Grand Prix clocked up 8.8 million viewers on Channel 5’s opening night. ITV has a selection of “events” guaranteed to deliver an attractive audience for advertisers, which it can scatter across a schedule otherwise dominated by its second big advantage over the BBC, drama.

While the BBC has struggled with a series of flops and has found it hard even to maintain the success of hits like Ballykissangel, ITV has continued to churn out popular drama which regularly achieves 10 million viewers or more.

ITV can still claim to be six points ahead of BBC1 in peaktime, and with 600m to spend this year on networked programmes, and a further 200m in the regions, comfortably has the resources to sustain its position.

And yet, human nature being what it is, ITV’s recent posture unmistakably betrays a preoccupation as much with Channel 5 as with the BBC.

What’s more, the Network Centre is now talking once more about recruiting a chief executive to work alongside Plantin, concentrating on the network’s marketing and public affairs, but also holding the ring when it comes to issues where scheduling and programming interests need to be balanced with commercial ones.

The future of News at Ten is one such issue, bound to be raised again once the election is out of the way. Increasing advertising minutage is another. Plantin, as chief scheduler, points out that longer breaks do seem to be very offputting to viewers but a chief executive might take a broader view, and conclude that the potential extra revenue outweighed the threat to ratings.

Now that ITV is effectively controlled by just three companies, plus Scottish, it’s apparently thought easier for a chief executive to function without ending up as little more than the companies’ errand boy.

On the other hand, any enterprise effectively controlled by Granada, Carlton and United News & Media, themselves run by men with egos the size of Gerry Robinson, Michael Green and Lord Hollick, could be a nightmare for any chief executive determined to impose his or her own stamp.

Most candidates of the necessary calibre (Greg Dyke springs to mind) wouldn’t touch a job like that with a barge pole.

But the very fact that ITV is contemplating such an appointment betrays a nervousness in Grays Inn Road about the future. Until now, success has bred success. That huge budget generates huge ratings, largely through drama, which in turn generates huge revenues to plough back into the budget.

But the success could prove fragile. The federal nature of the system means it could break down if the principal players were to disagree. If the competition really got its act together – if Channel 4 were privatised, if the BBC were to find a head of drama, if (or when) cable and satellite were to reach 60 or 70 per cent of the population – ITV could come under real pressure.

A powerful chief executive might help to stop the rot. But then again, such a figure could expose the tensions in the system.

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