Torin Douglas: Week of whingeing puts ITV and assets in jeopardy

ITV is right to be frustrated by the Government’s lethargy over digital TV, but its stab at the BBC and Sky is unjustified and could cost it its freedom, warns Torin Douglas

How ITV must be wishing it could turn the clock back. Not just a week, to pre-date the sending (and leaking) of that disastrous Granada letter to Tony Blair. But at least a month – to pre-date the launch of Survivor, the losses announced by Carlton and Granada, and Zenith’s prediction of yet worse advertising revenue figures.

For, not so long ago, things were starting to look up. The decision to absorb ONdigital into the bosom of the ITV family and appoint its boss Stuart Prebble as chief executive of the Network Centre was just the sort of joined-up thinking the network seemed previously to have been lacking. The imminent launches of ITV Digital, the new channel ITV Sport and the website seemed to show that Carlton and Granada – having seen off Lord Hollick’s United News & Media – were putting aside their differences for the greater good of ITV (and their respective share prices.)

Not only had the two companies dropped their competing Web ambitions, they had also decided ITV would, at last, join the digital satellite platform. And with Popstars they had shown that the UK’s most popular TV channel could still knock the socks off its rivals when it came to devising a hit new format that would pull in the all-important young viewers. Suddenly, it seemed, ITV had got its act together.

The new leader even had a date in his diary to proclaim the network’s bright new dawn. In his ONdigital days, Prebble had accepted an invitation to give the Goodman Media Lecture. I expected a statesmanlike address, in which he would throw off the Murdoch-induced inferiority complex of ONdigital and boldly place ITV – alongside the BBC – at the heart of the Government’s drive to bring digital television into every home. The omens were good: when many other commercial broadcasters wrote to the Department for Culture Media and Sport criticising the BBC’s plans to launch new licence-funded channels, Prebble told The Guardian he welcomed BBC 3 and BBC 4. Without them, he said, viewers would feel they had only half the set and so they’d be more inclined to go digital.

I thought he would trumpet the success of digital TV as the fastest-growing new TV technology ever (it is in 30 per cent of the nation’s homes less than three years after launch). I thought he might gracefully praise Sky and the BBC for their pioneering roles in getting digital established so rapidly, and welcome the belated success of the cable companies, before pointing out that only ONdigital – soon to be renamed ITV Digital – could ensure the Government met its target of switching the whole population over to digital.

I assumed he would point out that, in the early days, Sky would naturally sign up the most digital subscribers, because it was converting millions of them from its analogue service. ONdigital had actually won new digital customers faster than Sky. I thought he would challenge the City to look at the longer-term prospects for digital terrestrial TV.

I imagined he would explain that most people would not want – or could not have – either a dish or a cable, so these homes would have to switch over via ITV Digital. And that – since the analogue sets in people’s kitchens and bedrooms would also need upgrading – many would get the “plug-and-play” ITV Digital system as well as their living-room Sky or cable.

I expected him to proclaim that through the strength of its existing brand and programmes, and sub-brands ITV2, ITV Sport, and ITV Digital, ITV would lead the drive into the brave new digital world.

Naturally, I also expected some special pleading. Surely the Government could do more to support ITV’s efforts to convert the nation to digital? Where was its promised information campaign to overcome the confusion in the market and to encourage the sale of integrated digital TV sets? Why couldn’t it speed up the increase in power of the digital terrestrial transmitters and give a clearer statement about the ultimate switchover date. And should not Carlton and Granada be given a reduction in their licence payments, just as the BBC (through its “additional” licence increase) and the commercial radio companies (through an eight-year licence extension) were given inducements to encourage them to help the nation go digital?

To be fair, Prebble did make many of these points. Unfortunately, they were overshadowed by a most unstatesmanlike whinge about Sky and the BBC that not only revived the perception that ONdigital is struggling but also dominated the press coverage. Coupled with last week’s whinge to Tony Blair by Prebble’s former colleagues at Granada, it’s given the impression that a struggling ITV is about to be swallowed by a European predator and that ONdigital is – in many City eyes – worthless.

The headlines after Prebble’s speech read: “ITV chief slams BBC over Wimbledon”. He was talking about the interactive service which lets viewers choose between five courts. A few weeks ago, I wrote here that

this was exactly the sort of “killer application” digital TV needs to show people why it is much better than analogue (MW May 24). Yet Prebble argued that the BBC should have withheld it from licence-payers on the grounds that ONdigital hadn’t yet the capacity to deliver it, whereas Sky had.

Yet he never complained last year when the BBC provided ONdigital with its BAFTA-award-winning Wimbledon information service, nor did he mention that the BBC’s interactive election service was exclusive to ONdigital, and promoted as such. Shouldn’t ITV start acting like the brand leader, while it still is?

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News


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