Autumn has always been the most important time of the year for ITV1.
The station generates 40% of its £1.6bn annual ad revenue in the run-up to Christmas. But with ITV1's audience share down 6%-8% year on year in the first eight months of 2004, the current season (which started on 30 August) has taken on a special significance.
Unless ratings rise rapidly, ITV plc stands to lose £50m next year as a result of the Contract Rights Renewal (CRR) remedy, which allows advertisers to reduce their commitment to ITV in line with any fall in audience share (Marketing, 2 September).
With so much at stake, ITV1 has raised the autumn budget for director of programmes Nigel Pickard by £5m, taking the total for 2004 to about £835m. Most of the extra money is being invested in heavyweight drama, high-profile entertainment and a radical revamp of the daytime line-up.
Meanwhile, ITV1's off-air marketing budget has been trebled to £3m to drive viewers to key shows.
So is this enough to limit the damage being inflicted on the channel by the continued growth of digital TV? Although dramas such as Steel River Blues and Doc Martin have had good starts, and ITV is upbeat about the debuts of Parkinson and Saturday-night talent show The X Factor, the first week of the new season delivered only a 21.8% share, according to BARB, down from 24.8% in 2003. In peaktime, ITV1's share was 30.2%, compared with 34.7% at the same time last year.
To its credit, ITV is not waiting for audiences to stumble across its shows. In recent weeks, it has launched the first stage of an off-air promotional drive, with flagship shows supported in national press, on the radio and in cinemas, where ITV ran a 60-second promotion.
Controller of marketing Jo Davey argues that the scale and intensity of the activity marks a significant departure. 'In the past, we've relied more on ITV trailers and outdoor campaigns targeting light viewers in London,' she says. 'But this campaign is about bringing mass audiences to key ITV shows.'
Cynics might argue that the campaign is a one-off attempt to minimise damage to revenues as a result of CRR. But Davey says the strategy is here to stay. 'Now that ITV is speaking with one voice, we will increase off-air promotion of key shows,' she adds. 'By choosing the right shows, it should make a bigger statement about the ITV brand.'
Mark Trinder, head of marketing communications at Woolworths and chairman of the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers' TV Action Group, endorses ITV's off-air marketing. 'I've always been impressed with the off-air activity of Channel 4 and Sky,' he says. 'It's a way of building frequency and coverage.'
When it comes to the new schedule, Carat associate media director Matthew Landeman is also broadly supportive. 'The X Factor is shaping up to be a hit, and one-off dramas show that ITV is keen not to be over-reliant on soaps,' he says. Landeman also cites 'a closer relationship between programming and sales, which helps sell the schedule.'
Chris Hayward, head of TV at ZenithOptimedia, believes Pickard has put together a line-up that will appeal to ITV1's core family audience. 'CRR has had the welcome effect of incentivising ITV to create the best autumn schedule it can,' he argues.
But Hayward doubts whether ITV can make up ground lost earlier in 2004.
'That will be tough,' he says. 'It is building on a strong autumn 2003.'
Despite its increased marketing spend, ITV is aware that there is little room for growth in ITV1 primetime. Although the channel could benefit from the BBC's post-Hutton plan to restore serious shows to these slots, BBC One is still gunning for audiences. It has already dented ITV's domination of Sunday and Monday evenings by scheduling strong drama during the summer.
This has forced a shift in thinking at ITV. Instead of throwing its money behind ITV1, digital channels ITV2 and the new ITV3 will receive an extra £36m this year. The aim is to raise multichannel ad revenues to £150m a year by 2007.
Meanwhile, sales chief Graham Duff has put former Radio Advertising Bureau managing director Justin Sampson at the head of a customer relationship marketing team, charged with turning conversations about ITV1 spot ads into a broader marketing dialogue.
ITV's performance may ultimately depend as much on these behind-the-scenes efforts as ITV1's search for the elusive programming X-factor.
DATA FILE - ITV'S AUTUMN HIGHLIGHTS
- New drama including Frances Tuesday starring Tamzin Outhwaite, Doc Martin featuring Martin Clunes and costume drama Tom Brown's Schooldays starring Stephen Fry.
- Returning 'banker' shows, including Foyle's War, Rosemary & Thyme, Taggart and Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway.
- Talk show Parkinson following Michael Parkinson's defection from the BBC.
- Pop talent show The X Factor, starring Simon Cowell and Sharon Osbourne.
- Reality TV shows such as Holiday Showdown and Press Ganged.
- Champions League football.
- Planned spin-offs from ITV soaps to fill the 5pm-6pm slot.