The bare-faced cheek of ITV

15 Jan 2014  |  Raymond Snoddy 
The bare-faced cheek of ITV

ITV's submission to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee argues for top-slicing the licence fee, but the document reveals flashes of the blade, says Raymond Snoddy - and some bare-faced cheek.

ITV is on a roll. The company's share price has broken through the 200p barrier and rising, after scraping the very bottom of 23p, not just in living memory, but little more than five years ago.

Pre-tax profits rose by 16 per cent to £270 million in the six months to June and more will be on the way for the full year.

Great credit is due to all concerned. Such a turnaround was not inevitable and had to be earned, although the depth of the Atlantic scale troughs in the share price verged on the ridiculous. It was fuelled by City-driven nonsense about the death of channels and the end of traditional advertising-funded-television as we know it.

So apart from basking in the upper slopes what is ITV doing now? Trying to get its hands on other people's money obviously, in the form of arguing for top-slicing the licence fee and other changes that would greatly damage the BBC in future.

ITV's submission to the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee is a masterpiece of the genre.

It bends over backwards to avoid being mean-spirited and indeed supports and praises the importance of the BBC for this society, and even says Sky should have to pay for carrying BBC channels - before slipping in the stiletto.

In the oh-so-reasonable document there are three flashes of the blade. Blink and you could miss the impact. Hardly any blood shows.

There is also a little bit of bare-faced cheek - arguing that the BBC appears to be absorbing £700 million in cuts without "any obvious reduction in service provision."

ITV wants some of the funds of BBC News taken away and given to rivals."

Some might think this is quite a clever trick to pull off. Instead the poor old Beeb is castigated for repeating old editions of Flog It and Escape to the Country, a phenomenon which is, of course, the direct result of the first cut in budget in real terms the Corporation has had to face.

The BBC is also flayed for the fact that only 69.8 per cent of the audience think that BBC One's programmes "feel fresh and new" and this percentage has barely changed over the past three years. While every broadcaster should aim to improve, if ITV has produced its own statistic on such a question, sorry, I have failed to spot it.

But ITV's main target areas are news, access to independent production and an alleged failure to create enough distinctive and innovative programming.

News is perhaps the main battleground and here ITV can pray in aid BBC apostates such as Roger Mosey who believe BBC News is too big, too dominant in the market place.

ITV wants some of the funds of BBC News taken away and given to rivals, such as itself.

The numbers are interesting and indeed show that the BBC does indeed enjoy a powerful position in television news with 80 per cent of viewer hours compared with 13 per cent for ITV and only 6 per cent for Sky.

But is it a money problem?

ITV has jumped on a band-wagon that is gathering pace"

Sky produces a strong news channel and Channel 4 News is quite simply the best in the business.

ITV says it "invests" more than £100 million a year on all sorts of news, by any standards a decent amount of money. The BBC clearly spends more - £100 million a year excluding the cost of its main news bulletins and central news-gathering, the cost of which are not separately quantified.

Nobody actually forces people to watch BBC News and, as ITV obviously believes in competition, would it not be better if the commercial broadcaster wondered why £100 million investment only translates into a 13 per cent share?

ITV once had a poorly financed news channel which it then closed. How about using some of those profits to re-launch the ITV News channel, provide competition for Sky and BBC News, and increase its overall share of news? It would be better than trying to divert other people's funds.

ITV has also jumped on a band-wagon that is gathering pace - that all of the BBC's production should be opened up for competition, with the possible exception of news. At the moment 50 per cent is either guaranteed or can be contested by independents. This system which produces a 52 per cent split in favour of the BBC seems a reasonable balance and there are compelling reasons why it should be so.

As the consultant Claire Enders points out in an independent and fact-driven analysis for the Select Committee, the intellectual property in BBC programmes - 100 per cent for in-house production - belongs to all of us and is reinvested in more programmes. Under independent terms of trade the BBC, and we the viewers, get 15 per cent.

Enders does not mention training, but it is equally important that BBC in-house production is an important training ground for the UK's entire audio-visual industry.

On lack of distinctiveness, and too great a love for ratings, ITV has a small point, although perhaps it errs in expecting the impossible.

The main item given in support of the argument is The Voice, and perhaps the BBC could do better than ultimately paying Time Warner for such a generic format. But The Voice differs from The X Factor in important ways - more training for the contestants and a welcome absence of public humiliation, posing as entertainment. Is ITV saying the BBC should not be allowed to run a singing contest?

Trading individual "derivative" programmes does not get us very far. You can instantly counter attacks on The Voice by saying Stargazing Live worked splendidly across the week.

But is the contribution from Enders, herself a former senior ITV executive, which catches the eye. She has the wisdom not to reach for broadcasting innovations almost for their own sake.

The UK's £29 billion revenue from the audio-visual sector in 2010 - it must be considerably bigger by now - is the largest creative economy in the EU. The BBC is the cornerstone of that creative economy and the single largest source of funding for original UK content, excluding sports.

"Research shows that well funded PSB at scale does not 'crowd out' commercial expenditure on programming, but serves UK audiences and the UK economy by contributing to a 'virtuous' circle of investment and competition. As a result the UK has four global players in content creation and exports - the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and BSkyB - more than any other market apart from the US," argues Enders.

It would be great if MPs were wise enough to avoid trying to muck about with such a "virtuous circle" though you shouldn't count on it.

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Colin Mann, Managing Editor, Advanced Television Limited on 15 Jan 2014
“Is this the same ITV that copied BBC's one-off celebrity Christmas special - Strictly Ice Dancing - passing off 'Dancing on Ice' as its own creation? It surely is!”

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