What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

August 28, 2006

So you'll have had your ITV, then?

Charles Allen’s full-throated attack on Channel 4 in his McTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival last week sparked predictable outrage - as I’m sure it was designed to do, despite Mr Allen’s protestation that attack “is not really my style”.

What was perhaps most surprising about his address - which, incidentally, had way more witty one-liners than most ITV comedies - was the extent to which he focused his tongue-lashing on a channel whose audience share is less than half that of the network of which he is in charge (albeit only for another two months). BBC1, a channel which might once have been thought to be the chief concern of ITV’s chief executive, was not mentioned at all.

Less surprising was the valedictory defence of his tenure at ITV:

This year has been tough, but we've still had some fantastic shows from Lewis to Wild at Heart, from Soapstar Superstar to Dancing on Ice. And that's with the likes of Cracker, Prime Suspect, and I'm a Celebrity still to come.

Grouped by genre, that equals:
  • three celebrity reality TV series (Soapstar Superstar, Dancing on Ice and I'm a Celebrity);
  • a detective drama spin-off (Lewis, the sequel to Inspector Morse, first broadcast in 1988);
  • two detective drama revivals (Cracker (1993-96) and Prime Suspect (1991-2003)); and
  • one original drama… about a vet (Wild at Heart).

I’m dissing none of them, but if those are the creative highlights you select to illustrate your McTaggart Lecture then [unfortunately, the rest of this sentence was drowned out by the sound of Lew Grade spinning in his grave].

The truth is that there is only one terrestrial TV behemoth operating today - the BBC - with two others vying to be also-rans - ITV and Channel 4. A licence fee settlement of RPI+2.3% for seven years (which is what the BBC has requested) will further entrench Auntie’s increasingly monopolistic position. And, with it, bang will go any hope of competition in public service broadcasting.

Mr Allen clearly spelled out the economic realities:

… even with all the legislation and regulation in the world, you can't buck the market. Look at ITV. Two lines - advertising revenues and programming costs - are steadily converging. This year ITV1 advertising revenues will be lower than any year since 1993. But over the same period, ITV's investment in programming is up well over 50% reaching nearly two thirds of our total ad revenues, an historic record. Investing more and more to generate less and less just isn't sustainable. That's not a threat or a negotiating stance for Ofcom, but a grim fact of economic life. The same applies beyond ITV.

(He might also - if he’d been more honest about ITV’s recent failures - have added two words: “Investing more and more to generate less and less ambitious programming just isn't sustainable.”)

Of course, Mr Allen has a point about Channel 4’s rapacious commercialism: how poaching the meretricious Paul O’Grady Show from ITV proves the channel’s commitment to a public broadcasting remit is beyond me.

But to accuse it of having lost its mission - alleging viewers would like back the old Channel 4 that “preferred the risky to the risqué, that sought out the bold, not the banal, the Channel 4 that was brave rather than brazen” - suggests a sound-bite in search of an all-too-clichéd argument. For sure, Channel 4 has tapped the revenue-generating potential of a show like Deal Or No Deal - but, then, the first programme it ever broadcast was Countdown, so the pattern was established early.

Mr Allen’s real gripe, I suspect, is that Channel 4 has - with huge success - established that most important corporate touchstone of this new millennium: a brand. The channel has a cultural head-lock on that advertising-friendly demographic, 16-24 year-olds - the Heat generation - pinned in place by its T4 strand, with programmes like The OC, Hollyoaks, Friends, The Simpsons and (what else?) Big Brother.

Ask anyone, “Who is ITV aimed at?”, and the answers will probably range from a bemused shrug to “People who like reading TV Quick.” In Emmerdale and Coronation Street, ITV might well have two of the most bankable programmes around - but do advertisers want to reach a diminishing share of everyone; or a targeted niche suited to their key demographic?

However off-beam I think Mr Allen’s diagnosis of TV’s ailments, the twin medicines he prescribes deserve proper consideration.

First, that Channel 4 be allowed to move into production (legislation currently debars it from doing anything other than commissioning from independent production firms):

... as Channel 4 becomes more dependent on independents, the indies are becoming less dependent on Channel 4 - the value of programmes is moving beyond first terrestrial transmission. With no ability to make any programmes in house, Channel 4 could become more and more exposed.

And, secondly, that the BBC’s in-house production be allowed to earn commissions from other broadcasters:

It is, after all, the British Broadcasting Corporation, not the British Production Company. And it puts BBC producers under a form of creative house arrest with only one internal market for their ideas. If we'd operated the same restriction at ITV, UK viewers would never have seen The Royle Family, The Street, The Deal. Even Countdown, God love it. … It doesn't have to be this way. We could free up BBC producers to produce for the whole of the market, for viewers of all channels.

There is a clear and desirable outcome to both these proposals: a freer, fairer broadcasting market in which “all UK channels [are] able to commission the very best programmes from all UK producers.”

That certainly sounds like a better deal than continuing to heap more and more licence fee eggs into the BBC’s increasingly engorged basket.

1 comment:

Mark Luntley said...

As an occassional media watcher - viewing the iTV story has been a bit like watching a train wreck in slow motion. First the compacent 1980s - when resources that might have been ploughed into programmes or new technologes were wasted on bloated management structures, then the dozy misreading of the scale of the threat of the disruptive technology of Sky TV, followed by the rush into a superchannel - showing the best of ITV (sank without a trace), then making the same mistake with On-digital - compounded by overbidding for sports rights.

Finally the rush of mergers - which might have made sense 20 years ago, but which robbed ITV of its remaining distinctive attribute - its regional identify.

Looking back ITV only really ever existed because of a scarcity of a resource - broadcast frequencies. That's no longer the case, so along with nearly every other major broadcaster it is losing viewers. That would challenge any broadcaster. but ITV has been worse hit than most. The BBC has survived for now - because of some shrewed forward planning - and its generous resource base.

The longer term challenge is whether TV channels will even exist in the medium term, or whether we will simply buy programmes - either on line, via TIVO, or though other technologies. The video equivalent of podcasts - which exist already.

I suspect a major brand like BBC will exist (its web presence is something like the 25th most popular US website) - but against a background of a few global player. In effect it sells a "British" identity (BBC America and Canada exist already).

If TV becomes a national brand (a bit like airlines). CH4 might just end up as the quirky Virgin equivalent, but I can see ITV going the way of British Caledonian.