Whither ITV? 

1 November 2004 tbs.pm/2047

Andrew Bowden dusts off the crystal ball and envisages a post-analogue future

ITV logo with a question mark placed in it

The switch-off of analogue television will mark the completion of one of the biggest changes to television in the UK since the introduction of commercial TV in 1955. And one of the organisations it will affect the most is the channel that can trace its birth back to that time: ITV.

For most of its life, ITV as a network has stayed pretty much the same. True, the franchise-owners changed, colour was introduced, daytime television hours increased and there was some shifting of responsibilities when Channel 4 and S4C hit the airwaves, but until the mid-1990s, ITV was still a collection of regionally-based companies, each serving its own territory.

It wasn’t until the mid 1990s that change really hit. It was the decade that pay-TV started to increase as Sky pushed their satellite service in earnest throughout the country. And it was the decade that consolidation within ITV really began to gather pace. Within a few years, three companies – Carlton, Granada and United News & Media – owned most of ITV. Not long later, three became two and finally, in 2004, Granada and Carlton combined together to become ITV plc.

True, ITV plc did not own any franchises in Scotland, Northern Ireland or the Channel Islands, but change had happened. The revolution had begun.

Not only was ITV changing: so was the very nature of British television itself. A target date of 2012 was announced for switching off analogue television with its five channels, in favour of digital systems that offered from tens to hundreds of channels if you got the right setup.

Prisoner of the past

Yet ITV as a network is still inflicted by the quirks of the past. It remains the only mainstream TV company physically unable to broadcast 24 hours a day – the breakfast slot of 6-9:25am remains owned by a separate franchise. Completely different companies run its services outside England and Wales from those within. It is one of only two commercially-owned TV networks (the other being Five) that are forced to show programmes deemed to be of a public service nature – arts, news and religion for example. It’s the only commercial TV network that has to provide regional programming.

These quirks are, for many, what has made ITV a strong network over the years, but today they are, without a doubt, consigned to the dustbin.

The fragmented ownership of the network is slowly fading away. In October 2004, ITV plc increased its stake in breakfast franchise owner GMTV to 75% – requiring it to offer to purchase the shares of the remaining shareholder, Disney. If Disney accepts the offer, ITV plc will for the first time be able to run a 24/7 service on its channels.

Even if Disney hangs on, ITV plc’s control over GMTV will be such that the other shareholder won’t matter much anyway.

And then there’s the matter of the programming.

Public service – or not

It used to be so straightforward and simple. Being the only commercial broadcasters, the ITV companies were obliged to provide certain kinds of less popular programmes. Programmes about art, shows about religion, educational programmes and the like. And people would watch them because, well, there wasn’t much choice. After all, even as late as the early 80s, there was only BBC One and BBC Two to add to the choice, and they had programmes of that sort as well.

Then multichannel TV arrived with the new companies, unencumbered with public service requirements, free to cherry-pick and show only the most popular – or indeed, cheap – programming.

The arts and religious programming continued on ITV, but now fewer people watched them. And ITV – well they’d rather not have to broadcast them. Because… why should they? ITV began to campaign long and hard to be released from some of its shackles.

It’s a fair point. No digital-only station is required to do anything like that now, so when ITV becomes a digital-only station, why should it also? No longer will it have any special, nor unique, role to play in broadcasting. In that climate, why should it be forced to maintain an expensive network of regional centres if no one else has to? Current licenses commit it to doing so, but what’s to stop ITV plc handing them back, keeping its space on satellite, and bidding for space on another Freeview multiplex (or indeed, bidding for one of the multiplexes themselves)?

And that’s where the future looks pretty grim for SMG, UTV and Channel. ITV plc can easily go national on its own, and because it makes a huge amount of ITV’s most popular programmes and contributes most cash into the pot, it won’t be short of programming whilst the remaining companies – who contribute few programmes to the network – will not be left with much.

Unencumbered by its restrictive current licenses, ITV plc would be free to pump out its populist programmes across the nation – including the territories of its former partners.

Crossing the borders

So far ITV plc has made no (public) attempt to take over any of the three remaining players. And of the remaining companies, only SMG is likely to be any real target.

Its collection of newspapers, TV companies and radio stations makes it a prime candidate for a takeover bid so that the company can be broken up and sold to the highest bidders. Its radio division is based around Virgin Radio, and must represent a prime candidate for takeover by a group like EMAP. Its newspapers would attract all manner of interest. And as for its Scottish TV and Grampian franchises, with a programming library that might come in useful – well there’s only one potential purchaser. But they won’t want to overpay.

SMG has also been a slight thorn in ITV plc’s side – threatening legal action time and time again to assert that ITV plc can’t just use the ITV name without compensating the other owners of the trademark. If nothing else, removing SMG from the equation would make ITV plc’s lawyers a little less busy.

For Channel and UTV, takeover seems unlikely. Neither have any major programming assets that will rake in the cash, and taking over them would just be a case of filling in the blanks rather than taking over anything useful. And for Channel, there’s not even much of a jigsaw to fill in. It is without doubt the least significant ITV company of them all.

For them there are two possible routes – first their TV interests get sold at a knock down price to ITV plc just because ITV plc wants to finish the jigsaw puzzle, or they become part of a newer, smaller regional TV network which will undoubtedly be created to take over from ITV plc’s regional centres as soon as ITV plc threatens to close them down.

Whatever that new service turns out to be (assuming it is even created) the profits for the remaining companies are unlikely to match those of the old ITV days.

Roll on 2012?

Like it or not, what is written above is pretty much inevitable – guaranteed by the relentless push to take the nation digital. What happens to regional programming, public service television and the remaining independent ITV companies remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure – ITV in the form created in the 1950s is highly unlikely to be around to celebrate its 60th year of operation.

You Say

1 response to this article

Simon 27 June 2018 at 10:15 pm

Oddly, the one piece of the puzzle that ITV plc has *not* taken over is the one suggested as the obvious target, SMG.

Channel held out until 2011, and UTV until 2016. I don’t know why ITV bought either, perhaps they were just up for sale for a reasonable price and ITV thought it reasonable to buy them as a tidying-up exercise.

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