B'caster making changes with new investments, sharper marketing

LONDON — ITV was once the undisputed powerhouse of British commercial television. Not anymore — and all the signs are that things will get worse before there is any chance of an upturn.

The flagging giant has seen its audience share crumble from 43% to around 25% in the past decade.

Squeezed by the ad recession, disastrous pay TV venture ITV Digital — which lost shareholders Granada and Carlton upward of $1.4 billion — and a resurgent cash-rich BBC, ITV’s misery list recently got longer still.

First, its high-profile director of channels and de facto leader David Liddiment resigned July 3, leading to speculation that this may “destabilize” ITV further.

The following day, the web was humiliated by having its digital license handed over in what is described as “a digital land grab” to a free-to-air venture headed by the BBC and satcaster BSkyB, the network’s fiercest rivals.

Once again, the commercial giant was left reeling. “ITV can pull back ratings by investing in programs, but as far as being a major broadcaster they’ve blown it. ITV’s future is as a niche channel,” reckons a veteran of the U.K. TV scene.

Can the prognosis really be that bad? On the plus side, flagship channel ITV1 remains Britain’s only commercial station capable of regularly delivering mass audiences, and there are signs that ad revenue may be returning.

“In terms of audience share, you’ve got to look at this from a historical perspective,” insists a candidate for Liddiment’s job. “BBC1′s recent ratings success is cyclical.

“Not that long ago ITV’s peak time share was solid at 42% and everyone was writing off BBC1, which had no money and had spent 15 years failing to compete with ITV’s stranglehold on popular drama.

“The BBC has begun to get some things right, but sooner or later it will run out of steam. As ITV has discovered, you can’t refresh a channel without slowing down.”

Maybe. With a guaranteed license fee, the pubcaster is investing up to a third more in its peak time schedule than ITV1, which recently announced an extra $140 million to a program budget frozen at $1.05 billion since last year.

In 2001, BBC1′s share of total viewing was ahead of ITV for the first time, albeit by a single decimal point.

But this narrow margin disguised a disastrous fall for Liddiment, a highly respected but not always diplomatic figure.

Once feted for stripping “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” five nights a week, Liddiment’s luck ran out last September when his more edgy evening lineup and a disastrous daytime sked was trounced by BBC1.

Since then, ITV1′s performance has been overshadowed by the pubcaster. In May, in another first, BBC1 defeated the private web in peak time.

Overall, ITV1′s share of viewing managed 24.2%, believed to be an all-time low, against BBC1′s 26.6%. The private web, however, remains ahead overall in peak time with a 32% share.

ITV’s paymasters claim the fight back has now begun with new investment, sharper marketing and improved internal procedures designed to ensure that Granada and Carlton collaborate rather than snipe at each other behind the scenes to secure the biggest slice of revenue.

“Judgment day has arrived for ITV,” says a leading ITV player. “Granada and Carlton had their eye off the ball because of ITV Digital, but they now realize the main channel is their key asset and they’ve got to make it work. BBC1 has shown that you can still rekindle mass audiences. I’ve no doubt that ITV can be turned round. ”

Some suggest that before this can happen, heads will have to roll at Carlton and Granada and new senior management put in place.

The fall sked is more traditional ITV than last year’s effort, big on Hollywood movies, new action drama and entertainment formats, which shareholders hope will generate another “Pop Idol,” the web’s only recent hit.

Meanwhile, not only does a successor to Liddiment have to be found but also there is the knotty question of hiring a new CEO — Stuart Prebble resigned after the ITV Digital debacle.

Getting the right people — a favored candidate is Channel 5′s feisty CEO Dawn Airey, who began her career in the ITV system — is complicated because the jobs could be scrapped in a couple of years, or sooner. This is because of legislative changes allowing Granada and Carlton to merge, removing the necessity for a separate Network Center, responsible for commissioning and scheduling decisions.

Another twist in this salutary saga of what can happen to the market leader when the market turns sour is that once new media laws kick in, ITV could end up in American hands.

But as one wag remarked recently: “Unless ITV sorts itself out, who would actually want to buy either of its shareholders?”

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