ITV makes the Grade

by Stephen Tall on November 27, 2006

Michael Grade’s shock transfer from BBC to ITV is (pace the Norfolk Blogger) good news for television. The main commercial channel desperately needs a big hitter, a guy who understands budget lines – but, just as importantly, understands programming.

As I’ve argued before, good television is not determined by having one public service broadcaster funded by a licence fee, but by having a plurality of channels competing to drive up standards.

Before my boss, Tim Gardam, became my boss, he was a senior TV executive. A couple of months ago, he delivered a lecture in honour of Donald Baverstock, a legendary controller of BBC television.

It’s well worth reading in full, but this section will suffice for now. Not least for its devolutionary vigour, and spooky prescience:

If you look at the sad plight of ITV today, and recall its confident beginnings, its
seems to me that ITV’s mistake, around 2000, when faced with the tidal wave of digital competition, was to misunderstand where its residual power lay. Its sense of its public self, equal in stature to that of the BBC, was in fact its greatest asset.

As late as the 1990s, News at Ten was better than BBC News, ITV drama more adventurous, ITV Arts scheduled earlier in the evening than the Arts on BBC 1, ITV ran authored documentaries with equal impact. But, in facing the frightening competition of multi channel television, ITV chose deliberately to disavow its public inheritance, not to modernise it. In doing so, it diminished itself in the public’s imagination and in public esteem.

ITV did need to create a single brand, but I think it made a strategic mistake in seeing its regional identities across Britain as a problem not an opportunity. Think now what an unrivalled asset those old ITV local loyalties would have been in the online world where success depends on building up a close identity with one’s users. The ITV regional brands would have created extraordinarily powerful portals driving viewers through the TV screen to online networks targeting different communities of interest in Yorkshire, Granadaland, Tyne Tees, and across England. Local advertising revenues online would have replaced lost television advertising. …

Is it too late for ITV as a whole to recover its public stature? I don’t think it need be but I don’t think it wants to. Its public impact, as authentic as the BBC’s, used always to be its greatest asset, and one no new rival can hope to supplant. The modernisation of those values is a task which Lew Grade and Sidney Bernstein would once have relished to take on.

Okay, so ITV has landed Michael, not Lew, Grade – but close, and a cigar.