Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Friday, 1 January 2010

The trouble with ITV

Nicholas Jones has an opinion piece about ITV in the Independent today. In it he explains how the TV station is in dire straits, steadily losing audience share year on year and doing worst in the the key demographic area of 16-34 year olds (incidentally I just exited this demographic a few months ago). The competition from other media such as the Internet and computer games etc. has also taken it toll.

Towards the end of the article, Mr Jones specifies what he thinks could help to revive ITV's fortunes:

The average producer will shout me down, but many TV production budgets can be slashed using competitive bids instead of the set tariffs each type of production is deemed to cost. Digital technology now offers tremendous potential, both to reduce the huge cost of editing – and to shoot a new kind of low-cost drama and comedy using the best lessons of the US independent film-making sector.

In this way, ITV can start to craft a more edgy, fresher kind of programming that will draw young viewers in the next decade, such as my daughter.

I think this could help but here are my ideas for what I would do:

  1. Restore regional identity. I am old enough to remember when each ITV station had its own unique identity. I grew up in the Granada region but I was well aware of the other stations such as Thames, LWT, Yorkshire, Southern/TVS etc. before they all became merged into the corporate and bland ITV1. The stations used to be federated with lots of network programmes but also a number of regional variations and local programmes that we just don't get from them any more as well as regional continuity which had a more personal feel. I can still remember the personal connection I felt with some of the Granada (in vision) announcers such as Colin Weston, Charles Foster and Jim Pope (also the "voice" of University Challenge for many years). I know that going down this route would cost ITV money (one of the main reasons why they consolidated in the first place) but the technology is now much more geared to allowing a regional identity without it needing to cost an absolute fortune. It would also give them something that they are sorely lacking at the moment - a USP.
  2. Revive World In Action or create a modern equivalent. World In Action was a groundbreaking documentary and current affairs series that aired on ITV from 1963 to 1998. It won all sorts of awards for its investigative journalism and some of our best known journalists cut their teeth on the programme. Compare that standard of journalism with the dross ITV currently pumps out in this area such as the risible tabloid fodder Tonight. If ITV could have a flagship current affairs programme again it could be part of them rebuilding their reputation as a heavyweight broadcaster. Lord knows, with the mess the BBC have made with Panorama recently (presumably following Tonight down the lowest common denominator route) the field is wide open.
  3. More political programming. I know people will think I am just saying this because I am interested in politics but it is a disgrace that there are no longer any serious political programmes on ITV. They used to have a slot on Sunday which was variously filled over the years by Weekend World, Jonathan Dimbleby's eponymous political interview show, The Sunday Edition etc. Now there is no regular political programme. Again addressing this would add to ITV's reputation.
  4. Sort out the "Sitcom" problem. When was the last time ITV commissioned a really good situation comedy show? Why is it always the BBC and Channel 4 who have the good shows? If I was Archie Norman, the incoming ITV chairman, this is one area I would try to tackle straight away. It must surely be down to how they commission their shows. What are ITV doing wrong that shows like Peep Show, Gavin and Stacey, The Inbetweeners and The IT Crowd (to name but a few recent examples) wind up on their opponents stations? The only recent ITV sitcom I can think of that is even vaguely OK is No Heroics but the chances are that you haven't heard of it because it went out on ITV2 and when it was repeated on ITV1 was on after 11:00pm with as far as I can tell virtually no advertising. It was quite risque but the BBC and Channel 4 manage to put out similarly "boundary pushing" shows in a way that builds an audience. I am not saying this is an easy problem to solve but ITV could try hiring some of the talent in this area from the other channels and seriously try to attack the problem. I would suggest completely ripping up whatever procedures they currently have for sitcom commissioning and starting again from scratch, because whatever they are doing at the moment aint working.

There is obviously a lot more than just these areas that need addressing but they would be a good start. Frankly, the alternative is continued managed decline as ITV disappears into the morass of the hundreds of digital channels. It's got to at least be worth a shot to try and restore some of its former glory.


ianeiloart said...

Hmm, there's not a great deal I can say about this, because I watch so little ITV that I'm surprised when I see advertising on TV!

Braintree said...

The sitcom point is really interesting(all your points are but the sitcom issue stands out) because crucially when was the last time ITV1 took the risk and put a comedy on at Prime time.

Any "comedy" they do show is post-watershed, making it very clear they want to bury it.

I'm sad to say if ITV1 did disappear I wouldn't be remotely upset. Everything they do now is shambolic and half arsed.

StaceyUK said...

Hi Mark,

I linked to this and offered my own brief thoughts. You can find it at My Dreamwidth Blog

Happy New Year!

Pam Nash said...

I, too, was brought up in the Granada region - in fact I remember ITV starting in 1956.....I was VERY young!

The last good sitcom Granada produced was 'Watching' - simple, but with a great cast and scripts.

Now I very rarely watch ITV - I occasionally catch Coronation St, more out of sentiment than anything else, I remember that starting too. Virtually everything else is 'reality' based - cheap programming, compared with producing documentaries, drama or sitcoms. But with a rapidly diminishing audience share, you would think that someone would have the sense to see ITV's fatal flaw.

Andy said...

Frankly, it shouldn't surprise ITV that they are doing so badly in the 16-34 bracket. They have consciously chosen a path of being the channel for people in middle age, who just want to turn on the telly in the evening and take their minds off things with some mindless fodder. They are the Poirot channel, the I'm a Celebrity channel, the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire channel. They even advertised themselves as "the brighter side". The best thing they make nowadays is Harry Hill's TV Burp, but that's hardly edgy. Sit my mother in front of a digital telly nowadays, and chances are she'll end up in ITV's hands, probably in the form of ITV3, watching something adapted from an Agatha Christie novel.

They are doing quite nicely thank-you with this audience, the problem is that the more they sink into this comfortable zone of cutting out anything that might be - whisper it - thought provoking, the harder they make it to attract back the chattering classes, who always (including myself) show up in discussions of ITV to declare that they hardly watch the channel (and sometimes add, wrongly, that therefore nobody is watching it), and the younger audience, who prefer slightly blacker comedy and slightly more depressing drama (both of which tends to alienate the audience that ITV does have).

Personally, I think that ITV is being perfectly rational in recognising that in a multichannel age, they might as well pick themselves an audience group, make it as wide as possible, and cater to them relentlessly. It's only the BBC and Channel 4 who are in a different position, as entities with a remit to appeal to everyone at least some of the time, who need to worry about keeping every demographic slice on board. What ITV needs to watch out for is strategies that try to bring back the days when there were only three or four channels on offer, and therefore, by default, they attracted an audience share which reflected that reality. They could really burn themselves out chasing after something which just isn't going to happen again.

Shamik said...

Where to start?! Most depressing of all about their demise is the complete lack of political programmes or investigative journalism, like the Cook Report - now that was fantastic!

ITV News is also pretty poor nowadays, though they do have some of the best hacks around, Tom Bradby, Daisy McAndrew, and I'm a massive fan of Alastair Stewart!!

Anyway, happy new year Mark and everyone, have a great 2010!

Rab C. Nesbitt said...

I've spent many an hour looking through this site. The memories came flooding back...

Cardinal Richelieu's mole said...

Rational and reasonable though your solutions are for ITV (and delightfully betraying your Lib Dem attitudes), they are relevant in so far as is re-creating the past (one kinder and gentler, as G. Bush Snr. would say, perhaps?).

Times have changed and had you instead asked yourself the question, "Would anyone starting a TV media business today elect to reproduce the ITV of a decade ago?" then likely you may have proposed a different future for ITV.

I agree with the comments of Andy above (1 Jan, 15.51). ITV is slow and late, but it can reinvent itself as something substantially distinguished from what it started out as if it wants (and deserves) to survive.

The most objectionable aspect of the views you express is the assumption that ITV is of consequence such that third parties (including the public) should care about its fate. The reason that is objectionable rather than simply quaintly old-fashioned is that when the long-overdue day of reckoning comes for the BBC, those trying to preserve its present state will deploy that same view, reinforced inter alia by it having been applied to ITV.

The Lakelander said...

The real problem for ITV is not one of programme quality or confusion over its target demographic, it's the out-of-date business model it is running.

When free-to-view commercial television first went on the air, there was virtually no competition from commercial radio, the internet didn't exist and it was virtually a licence to print money.

Not only are there so many competing routes to consumers' eyes and ears nowadays, but most people can record programmes and zip through the adverts - and advertisers know this.

For the same reason that most local newspapers are living on borrowed time, so is ITV, unless it can find a way of making people pay to view its output. Unfortunately, they will never do that if they continue to cut back on the quality of original programming.

Despite all the ideas of product placement and sponsorship, I personally think that ITV - as we know it - is toast.