ITC has nothing to fear from a lighter touch

ITV is angry at being ticked off by the ITC for a lack of diversity in its programmes. But by changing its ratings- rich format, ITV will not necessarily deliver a bigger, or more varied, viewing audience. By Mike Wood Mike Wood is JWT’s media

ITV’s head of drama is furious, after the Independent Television Commission’s 1996 performance review of the terrestrial channels.

The ITC believes there to be insufficient variety in the ITV schedule, and that comedy and entertainment are being usurped by an excess of drama. Coronation Street, Emmerdale, The Bill, and the 9 o’clock drama strand have been put in the dock as enemies of diversity. Little wonder The Network Centre is apoplectic – their crown jewels are being denounced by the ITC.

To understand the ITC’s position, we need to bear in mind that its remit is to ensure a high quality of service, and a wide range of programmes appealing to large audiences.

This puts the ITC in a slightly awkward position. It has a clear duty of service to the viewer, yet, ensuring a diversity of programming appears to carry greater importance than giving viewers what they want to watch.

This makes me uncomfortable. In exercising influence over the schedule in defiance of what the large majority of viewers want, the ITC is failing to serve viewers’ interest and becomes part of the “we know what’s best for you” establishment.

This isn’t an argument for highest audience, lowest common denominator programming. Indeed, there is hard evidence to suggest that programmes which viewers enjoy and become involved with benefit the advertising in terms of higher brand recall.

Nor is it to dismiss the case for variety. But diversity of programming is not always the best way to deliver diversity of audience. The fact is that drama nearly always delivers more of the elusive young and upmarket audiences than do genres such as arts and documentaries, both of which the ITC would like to see feature more prominently on the ITV schedule.

This means more pressure on powerful advertiser lobbying to arrest declining audiences by increasing the amount of advertising minutage. This is a contentious issue, and it is by no means certain that advertisers will get their way – not least because any change will require ITC sanction.

ITV will be anxious to avoid being seen to worsen the audience situation by tampering with its ratings-rich drama output. That said, there will be a reluctance to act in complete disregard of the ITC. ITV has never shirked from fighting its corner, but regulatory authorities are there to be heeded, particularly those with the ability to revoke broadcasters’ licences.

The Incorporated Society of British Advertisers and the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising should lend vocal support to ITV on this issue, and for once there is a common interest in maintaining audience levels. Support, however, should go further than simply a sturdy defence of drama content in the schedule. Channel 4 and the BBC already have a remit to discriminate positively in favour of diversity. Channel 5 has brought additional choice to the large majority of homes.

It is time for a lighter-touch ITC. The 1990 Broadcasting Act is worded sufficiently openly to allow the ITC discretion in the degree of influence it brings to bear on ITV. Viewers and advertisers would benefit from a more laissez-faire environment. There is little to fear. Competition is much more fierce than when the Broadcast Act came into being, and if ITV is neglectful of a particular audience, other channels will take over the poorly-patrolled territory.

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