Who wants to be a multi-million television audience attractor?

ITV1 demonstrated to advertisers last week that the much-maligned dinosaur excels at delivering audiences in the millions

In fact, getting it right to the nearest hundred is quite hard. According to ITV’s autumn presentation to advertisers last week, the answer is 241. That sounds a lot, particularly when many households can still receive only four or five. But it’s a vast underestimate, according to Ofcom’s review of the Communications Market 2005. It puts the figure at over 370 – not counting all the time-shifted “+1 hour” variations.

Ofcom says that, at the end of May, satellite offered 352 TV channels (not counting time-shifted ones, regional versions of BBC1, BBC2 and ITV1, interactive services and pay-per-view channels), up from 272 in 2003. Last year Ofcom issued no fewer than 156 new channel licences, three-quarters of them in the entertainment, shopping, sport and adult genres.

Maybe ITV meant what we might call “proper” channels, though even that is hard to define these days. But what is clear is that the pace of change in the digital world is speeding up, in TV, radio, the internet and telecoms.

Ofcom’s annual review shows there are now more households with broadband internet than dial-up connections, while revenue from mobile phones has overtaken that via traditional landlines. Every month, 250,000 homes – equivalent to a city the size of Sheffield – are installing digital TV, while radio listeners are tuning in via their TV set, their computer, their DAB receivers and their mobile phones. Even Trevor Baylis’s famous wind-up radio is going digital from the autumn, when you’ll be able to buy a DAB/FM receiver with three power sources – mains, batteries and the clockwork mechanism as back-up!

The Ofcom review also reveals that 62 per cent of homes now have digital TV, up from 53 per cent in the first quarter of 2004. Its chief operating officer, Ed Richards, predicts that satellite, cable and terrestrial will soon face competition from a new platform – TV via broadband. As if to confirm the point, BBC3 is premiering its comedy series The Mighty Boosh on the internet, a week before it is broadcast.

This is making life more difficult for the existing broadcasters, not least for ITV, which hasn’t covered itself in glory in recent years. Melvyn Bragg’s five-part series, The Story of ITV, which ended this week, was a fascinating reminder that for most of its 50 years, ITV has been successful at combining commercial success with public service programming – drama, documentaries, news, current affairs and arts.

If Bragg glossed over the managerial mistakes of recent years – not least the infighting between Carlton, Granada and United Media, and the sacrificing of News at Ten – that is understandable. The series, as he admitted in the final sequence, was conceived to remind people of ITV’s achievements, at a time when most people are concentrating on its deficiencies. Hardly a month goes by without a news story proclaiming a “worst ever” Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday for ITV1. On Sunday, The Independent on Sunday found a new variation – “ITV1 suffered its worst-ever monthly audience slump last month in homes equipped with Freeview”.

ITV has gone on the offensive, spelling out just what fragmentation in the digital world means for advertisers – far fewer programmes that deliver audiences in the high millions and many that hardly deliver an audience at all. And guess which channel still delivers the vast bulk of the big audiences? ITV.

Last week, in the old LWT studios on the South Bank, ITV set out to reconnect with its advertisers. Chris Tarrant hosted a special charity edition of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, director of programmes Nigel Pickard unveiled its autumn programme line-up – focusing on “banker” drama and entertainment shows – and director of programme strategy David Bergg graphically demonstrated that ITV is still the only commercial broadcaster that consistently delivers multi-million audiences.

He did so by showing what he called Fragmentation – The Movie. It’s a classic bar chart showing the audience share of every commercial TV channel, with the largest on the left. ITV1 totally dominates, with 37 per cent of adults, followed by Channel 4 with 16 per cent, Five 11 per cent, and then, between two and three per cent, ITV2, GMTV, Sky One and so on. Every other channel is tiny. He did the same with ABC1 adults and 16- to 34-year-old adults, where ITV1 still outperforms Channel 4. Why The Movie? In each case, Bergg then whizzed along the slide, showing channel after channel with virtually no audience at all.

241 channels? 370? Who’s counting?

Torin Douglas is media correspondent on BBC news


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