One into Four

A history of ITV’s digital channels by Dominic Small

First published November 2009

At 9pm on Sunday 1 November 2009,  ITV3 reaches its fifth birthday. Two hours earlier, ITV4 notches up its fourth. Buoyed by their association with the UK’s largest and longest-established commercial broadcaster – and their presence on the now-dominant Freeview platform – the channels, along with sister station ITV2, have grown and evolved to become a key part of the UK’s digital landscape. But how did this family of services come to be, and can they maintain their momentum amid the stiff competition from the BBC, Channel 4, Five, Sky and others, all of whom are also looking to carve up a slice of the digital viewing pie? Here’s a concise, and at times chronological, history of ITV’s efforts at making tracks in the march to multichannel…

EARLY LEARNING: A first tilt at the future of telly

Although 11 of the 15 ITV franchises (73% of the network, if you prefer) are now in the hands of one entity, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the time when satellite and cable services were just developing, ITV was still a very fragmented organisation, each company having its own management and strategy. As such, there was no unified ITV approach to taking on this new competitor. In addition, ITV companies already had the responsibility of a second channel – Channel 4, although editorially independent of ITV, was transmitted by ITV companies (who also sold advertising slots on the channel) between launch in 1982 and 1992, before becoming fully independent from January 1993.

That said, ITV regional operators did dip their toes into the satellite pool quite early on, with mixed results. Many of the ITV franchisees of the time worked together to launch a new UK-based satellite channel with Europe-wide broadcast, though this pioneering venture – Superchannel – was not as successful as had been hoped and later ended up in the hands of an Italian firm, and subsequently the American broadcaster NBC, who dumped much of the UK content for US-produced output.

London weekday provider Thames TV struck a pioneering deal with the BBC’s commercial arm to launch a new service based on archive British TV programming in 1992, but Thames pulled out of this venture – the original form of UK Gold – after losing their ITV franchise to Carlton, being sold off to Pearson (now RTL) and moving away from broadcasting to focus on programme production (ultimately becoming the current talkbackThames). Meanwhile, Scottish TV launched a tie-up with BSkyB for Sky Scottish, which aired from 1996 to 1998, and offered UK-wide airing of shows produced by STV and their then-recently-purchased subsidiary, neighbouring Grampian.

However, by far the most successful of these ventures was Granada Sky Broadcasting, which launched on 1 October 1996 as a tie-up between Sky and Manchester-based Granada TV, one of the longest-established elements of ITV. This initially set off with a rather scrappy septet of services (Talk TV, Granada Plus, Men & Motors and the barmy four-in-one Good Life) crammed into the available slots, but later settled down to the more durable three-part set (Plus, Men & Motors and much-improved lifestyle offering Granada Breeze). Whereas the other ventures listed here were short-lived, GSB channels lived on well into the 21st century: Men & Motors, now wholly-owned by ITV, is still on air.

IT TAKES TWO: The debut of digital and of ITV2

What you’ll no doubt have noticed about the channels in the above section, is that none of them traded under the ITV name. This was because it was, until 1998, relatively rarely used; the local stations generally preferring to present their own local identity to the audience, only occasionally using the ITV name in reference to networked content. (An earlier, patchy attempt to bind the ITV network under a unified brand identity faltered when only a handful of regions adopted the format.) However, the late-’90s run of consolidation between licensees saw the introduction of a new ITV network logo, much more extensively used across the station, in 1998.

That relaunch came ahead of the introduction of digital services, which, having been in development for some years, finally made their debut in the last quarter of that year. ITV was influential in the pushing the format, due to the pay digital terrestrial service ONdigital being owned chiefly by Carlton and Granada. It was from these firms  the first ITV-branded excursion into multichannel television emerged, when on 7 December 1998 the new ITV2 launched. In its early years this offered a mix of archive ITV content, fast-turnaround replays of popular shows (something which continues on ITV2 today) and low-budget new content such as music series Bedrock. ITV2 was made available on the ONdigital platform (in England and Wales) and  also offered to cable providers. However, the channel was absent from 1998′s biggest digital launch, Sky Digital.

Sky’s satellite service – which used the higher capacity of satellite to offer more channels for the money and better reception quality – became a much more popular platform, with ONdigital growth slow by comparison. This led to the majority of the era’s digital viewers missing out on the new ITV channel entirely. ITV had withheld the ITV network – and ITV2 – from satellite in order to use it as a weapon to promote the ONdigital service, though the banner in ITV’s place on the Sky Guide instead advised viewers to switch back to analogue TV for their local ITV service. However, it soon became apparent that without the support of the satellite audience, ITV2 would struggle to survive.

ALL TOGETHER NOW: Revamps and rebrands to emphasise the ITV brand

Three years after the launch of ONdigital and ITV2, 2001 saw a new attitude at ITV. Following the poor performance of ONdigital – now with literally millions fewer viewers than Sky’s service – further attempts to ironize the service and its channels were made. ONdigital was rebranded as ITV Digital, with the launch of a new ITV Sport channel taking the place of ONdigital’s limited Champions League opt-out services. ITV also continued the march towards unifying the network, with the rebrand of its main channel as  ITV1, though for the first year under this name the change consisted simply of adding a ’1′ to the previous station logos.

This alteration did not initially address the biggest issue affecting ITV’s future: the absence of their channels from the Sky platform. It was heavily contributing to the damage being done to ITV1′s audience by digital fragmentation, with audiences exploring the new options available to them via new niche channels launched on an almost continual basis, and in turn moving away from the traditional broadcasters. Eventually, however, Carlton and Granada – by now the de facto rulers of ITV, given their majority holding of the network – decided  their channels should be where the audiences are, rather than being locked away to the self-selecting few who’d opted for ITV Digital. As such, a deal was struck with Sky whereby ITV1 regions and ITV2 would be made available on satellite.

Whereas 103 on Sky’s EPG had been held back in anticipation of ITV1′s eventual addition to the line-up, no such concession was granted for ITV2 which opened its satellite service at the back end of the Entertainment guide – a vastly different situation for the channel than on ITV Digital, where it had been granted a prominent spot next to the main terrestrial channels. ITV2 also became a truly national channel by replacing UTV and STV’s attempts at a second channel for their regions. (These had, by the time of their demise, become little more than simulcasts of ITV2 with local branding.) ITV also took a stake in the ITN-branded news channel which ITN and NTL had launched, ultimately taking full control and rebranding the service as ITV News. Now, after nearly 50 years on-air, ITV had a national brand and a range of services which could be promoted across the country.

However, the wheels soon began to fall off this new vehicle. In expanding ITV Sport Channel from a limited-time opt-out to a fully-fledged key channel, ITV had aggressively chased available sports rights in a market where Sky had already signed up many of the crown jewels. This rapid over-expansion, coupled with the small number of subscribing viewers (the channel having not joined ITV1 and ITV2 on satellite), saw the newcomer rapidly lose money and become unable to pay its bills. By May 2002, ITV Sport Channel – and the ITV Digital service with it – had been sunk. Now, viewers were left with a limited selection of free channels – including ITV1 and ITV2 – and Sky were able to claim victory. Well, they were, until Freeview came along…

FREE FOR ALL: Freeview begins and ITV unites

With their days as a platform operator over, ITV could concentrate on their traditional role as a general entertainment broadcaster. ITV2′s position on satellite improved thanks to Sky’s attempts to tidy its EPG and close up gaps between channels; ITV2 ultimately ended up on channel 175, though this was still some distance from the majors.

Granada Sky Broadcasting also continued to be a success on satellite and cable, despite the pay channels’ removal from DTT due to the collapse of ITV Digital. That said, 2003 saw the closure of Granada Breeze due to intense competition from other broadcasters in the leisure category, and another lifestyle-flavoured Granada joint-venture at the turn of the millennium, Wellbeing (with Boots), proved short-lived.

The collapse of ITV Digital had opened up space on the new Freeview platform for fresh channel ideas, but ITV were not able to return Plus or Men & Motors – which were at the time pay channels – to the new system. 2002 also saw the ITV companies owned by Carlton and Granada work more closely together, introducing networked presentation announcements and promotions, and ultimately in 2004 the two firms merged to form ITV plc, with a majority holding in ITV’s operations – not just cementing their power over ITV1, but also putting ownership of ITV2 into a single body for the first time.

THREE DELIVERY: The launch of a new channel and the rather rapid removal of another

By 2004, Freeview had established itself, and ITV began to seriously consider new prospects for the available space. One idea floated was a channel which would provide a complement to the young-skewing ITV2 with a service for older viewers, operated on a cost-effective basis by using content and rights from the extensive ITV library and imports, and benefitting from its association with the ITV brand (which had recovered from much of the damage done by the ITV Digital collapse). There were, though, a number of issues with this idea – whether the channel would be sufficiently different from the existing Granada Plus, amid suggestions they would have similar content and audience profiles, and whether it would be visible on EPGs, where new additions go to the back of the guide or adjacent to existing sister channels. (As a result, the channel was given a Freeview launch position of 34, while on Sky, had it been put next to ITV2, it would have been on 176.)

There were, though, suggestions ITV3 would not be launched on Sky at all, who had put a freeze on new additions whilr technical works on their EPG system were undertaken. ITV had not confirmed the new channel’s launch with Sky in time to get around this freeze, as such, when programme listings went out for the week of launch, ITV3 was shown as being a new free channel on Freeview and cable, with Plus listed as a continuing service on Sky and cable. However, what actually went down was somewhat different. An 11th-hour move saw ITV buy out Sky’s share of GSB, and take control of Plus and Men & Motors. After the deal was agreed, Sky was more willing to accommodate ITV’s wishes and hauled Plus from the air (part-way through a programme). ITV2 was bumped up the guide to the prominent 118 position previously occupied by Plus, with the Plus slot on the  shifted to 119 and reallocated to the new ITV3 mere hours before the channel’s opening.

It had been determined that drama – a genre which ITV had a rich history and deep archive of – would be a key part of the new arrangement, and the channel’s first night on air was dominated by fresh examples of the genre, opening at 9pm with a new edition of ITV1 hit Rebus and following this up with the UK premiere of US series Hack. The night closed with a movie, In The Heat of the Night, before the channel began its first full day on air the following morning.

ITV3′s debut week on air saw the channel airing primarily vintage UK and US dramas, including Peak Practice, Chicago Hope, Maigret, LA Law, Taggart, Providence and Outside Edge, with the schedule bolstered by episodes of Survival, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and Parkinson – suggesting a channel that would provide a selection of intelligent, entertaining programming tailored to the mature audience. However, the fiction rated better than the non-fiction, and in time the bulk of ITV3′s output consisted of classic drama and comedy, with only limited factual and entertainment content.

The addition of the Plus library to ITV3′s helped bolster this move, and soon it was on its way to success, helped by a move to a better Freeview postion; an EPG reshuffle which moved all teletext services into the 100s range allowed BBC4 to move from channel 10 to replace Teletext on 9, this in turn releasing 10 for ITV3. In time, ITV’s 2 and 3 were able to hold their heads high among the exclusive club of most-watched digital channels, a place once dominated primarily by pay services such as Sky1.

FOUR TO THE FLOOR: May the fourth channel be with you

With ITV plc now having established a strong family of branded channels, the firm looked into further developing its portfolio. Following the launch of ITV3, there was much speculation about what ITV’s next channel launch would be. The network ultimately decided to utilise their strength in general entertainment channels by launching a fourth offering in this category.

ITV2, having begun as a mixed general offering, was now skewing towards a female audience with a range of talk shows, US drama, frothy entertainment and soaps, and so ITV saw the opportunity to develop something for a young, edgy, male-skewing audience. The fourth channel would also enable ITV to offer a new home to its remaining digital sports coverage, which had been shoehorned into ITV2 following the demise of the ITV Sport channel. However, with ITV’s four slots on the Freeview multiplex they shared with Channel 4 already allocated (to ITV1, ITV2, ITV3 and ITV News Channel), they needed more space to expand into, and so, when a slot on one of Arqiva’s commercial multiplexes became available, ITV joined the bidding race and won the position. This enabled ITV to develop formats for a new channel to take the capacity, and the “ITV4″ (still yet to officially be called that) proposal gathered steam.

Of course, ITV already had a men’s channel in its portfolio – the low-budget former GSB operation Men & Motors, which had become fully part of ITV in the 2004 deal to buy Sky out of the venture. ITV’s original proposal appears to have been to evolve M&M into a new ITV-branded men’s channel in a similar manner to ITV3′s rather more sudden dissolution of Plus. To that end, pay channel M&M was relaunched into a free-to-air channel, pulling it out of the subscription package on Sky and adding it into their new Freeview space.

The pay M&M was previously home to a mix of car guides (eg. Used Car Roadshow), glamour model raunch (Michelle Marsh’s Steam Room) and low-budget masculine entertainment (such as rowdy pop quiz Elvis Has Just Left The Building), but the move to free broadcasting saw the channel tidy up its act a bit and bin off some of its spicier output, replacing it with reruns of archive ITV1 content (Hale & Pace, Boon, Soldier Soldier) and earlier ITV2 shows (Office Monkey, Wudja Cudja?). The revamp of M&M, coupled with its wider availability, saw the channel’s viewership rise sharply, to a degree which surprised even ITV. The proposal to bring out a new ITV-branded channel aimed chiefly at men did not go away, however, and any plans to close M&M were put on hold when ITV looked at the rest of its portfolio.

While ITV2 and ITV3, and the revived M&M, were performing well with viewers and advertisers, ITV News Channel was struggling, in a market dominated by the longer-established commercial rival Sky News and the licence fee-funded BBC News 24 (as was). Whilst ITN was and is a fine news organisation, its rolling channel was hampered by a lack of investment that led to the station airing more rebroadcast and recorded content than rival channels. The advertising airtime was also less valuable to ITV than that of Men & Motors.

Ultimately, it came to pass that ITV’s new channel would, on Freeview at least, take the News Channel’s evening capacity, with a daytime news service continuing (on Sky and cable, where more capacity was available, the News Channel continued to screen 24/7). The freed-up evening content went on air on 1 November 2005 as ITV4 – promoted as an edgy new destination for drama, sport, films and comedy.

The first night on ITV4 provided a snapshot of the likely focus of the new channel, with sport (a live Champions League match, in fact) providing the station’s first programming, airing live at 7pm on launch day. After that, it screened the combination of US-made drama and Hollywood film which had proved a winner for ITV3′s launch – in this case the UK premiere of the revived Kojak starring Ving Rhames, and then the film Carlito’s Way. Whereas ITV3 had gone to bed after its big flick, ITV4′s target audience was more likely to be receptive to a little after-hours laughter, and so it kept up the pace with airings of The Late Show with David Letterman (ITV became the latest in a line of UK stations to snap up Letterman, only to drop him the following year) and a Richard Pryor film.

The channel’s full launch, however, was only to Freeview and cable viewers, as Sky was not able to give it a slot on the satellite EPG until a week after launch. ITV got around this, however, by tearing up the Men & Motors schedule for the week of ITV4′s launch; instead, M&M viewers saw the entire first night of ITV4, and selected content (mainly sports events and key new drama premieres) for the remainder of the week, in a hastily-concocted “ITV4 On M&M” strand. This did, though, have the benefit of promoting the new arrival to viewers who would normally automatically switch to M&M and may not have been aware of the new sibling otherwise.

Eventually ITV4 did make it onto satellite, enjoying a high position next to ITV3. On Freeview, ITV4 was not so lucky. Just as the ‘first come first served’ approach had landed ITV3 with slot 34 at launch, so ITV4 wound up tucked away on channel 30, behind numerous other stations including music stations (TMF, The Hits), shopping channels (Ideal World, QVC, bid tv) and rival entertainment stations (Ftn, E4, More4), as well as Top Up TV’s lineup of linear pay channels. This did give the channel some visibility issues.

Additionally, it was only available between 6pm and 6am daily, meaning that unlike on ITV’s other stations, evening programmes could not inherit daytime viewers. This led to the channel not immediately being as successful as ITV2 and ITV3. It also suffered from a low budget, which meant  new content was few and far between – instead relying heavily on the ITV-owned archive of vintage ATV/ITC sci-fi and adventure, along with films, imports (such as Andromeda) and shows from ITV’s factual entertainment division, such as Police, Camera, Action.

There were attempts to stretch the budget. Although Men & Motors continued as a channel, new commissions for it were suspended, with the commissioning budget moved over to ITV4; some ongoing M&M commissions, most notably Used Car Roadshow, were moved across from M&M to ITV4. Of course, the ongoing existence of the longer-established M&M also led to the channels competing with each other for the male viewer, although their varying approaches (M&M chummy and downmarket, ITV4 edgy and upmarket) provided a point of difference.

In time, word of ITV4 spread, and while some still see the channel as being a series of second-string football matches held together by episodes of The Persuaders – and ITV4 has perhaps failed to capitalise on ITV’s strengths in some genres (for example, in comedy, where ITV4′s output has primarily consisted of short-lived US offerings such as The Winner and the animated spin-off from Clerks) – it does appear to be moving, albeit slowly, in the right direction, recently joining its siblings in the upper rank of digital channels.

GIRLS AND BOYS IN LOVE: Children’s ITV gets its own television station

With ITV3 and ITV4 safely in the bag, 2006 saw the network continue to develop its digital portfolio further, with two new channel launches.

ITV had noticed the shift in children’s viewing away from the mainstream  to dedicated digital channels; with a majority of youngsters now living in digital-equipped homes, viewing figures for the CITV block on ITV1 were in decline. Whereas Carlton had operated a short-lived children’s channel, Carlton Kids, on the ONdigital service between 1998 and 2000, ITV was generally at a disadvantage in the satellite-led early years where younger viewers in homes signed-up to pay services were exploring new options available to them through the likes of Fox Kids (now Disney XD), Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and Disney Channel. These operations, mainly based on stations from the US, aired primarily imported cartoons and did not have the scale of commitment to UK production that ITV and the BBC had.

The BBC, incidentally, also observed the shift to kids’ channels, and capitalised on this by launching CBBC and CBeebies in 2002. However, even after CITV’s long-term rival went digital, ITV still stuck to its guns and continued to put the majority of its childrens’ budget into shows that were available on analogue. This, though, led to ITV – for many years a key supplier of kids’ TV in the UK – having to play catch-up to more focused rivals.

Finally, in 2006, CITV joined the march to digital, launching its own channel. The station took up a 6am-6pm slot shared with ITV4 and vacated by the closure at Christmas 2005 of the underperforming ITV News Channel. The CITV-branded venture was, however, not afforded the scale and range of production that CITV’s glory years on ITV1 had enjoyed, with reruns and imports making up a large amount of the digital channel’s schedule.

With ITV now providing 12 hours a day of childrens’ programming on a dedicated channel, the decision was taken to dump the declining ITV1 childrens’ block in favour of content aimed at a grown-up audience. This was in contrast to the BBC, who have maintained kids’ programmes on BBC1 and 2 despite their digital channel launches. First to fall from ITV1 was Saturday morning series Holly & Stephen’s Saturday Showdown, replaced by Saturday Cooks, an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to unseat the BBC’s Saturday Kitchen (ITV poached the SK presenter and production team for the launch of Cooks, but SK continued under a new team and ultimately outlived the pretender to its throne.) Later, CITV’s longstanding berth on weekday afternoons was disposed of in favour of murder and mystery dramas; however, this has resulted in Ofcom sanctions when the shows, generally initially produced for a post-watershed slot, have been deemed too gruesome for teatime – Taggart, for instance, attracted concerns.

Now, aside from a slim strand of shows popping up virtually unannounced on some weekend mornings, ITV1 has virtually ditched younger viewers altogether – a strange state of affairs for one of the UK’s largest family entertainment channels. Whether CITV as a channel can fill the gap will depend on if ITV is committed to continue with kids’ telly, or if they wave the white flag and succumb entirely to the US invasion.

PLAY UK: ITV goes gaming with an attempt to phone it in

The CITV channel was followed swiftly by ITV’s second new launch of 2006. After a trial of overnight phone-in quiz shows on ITV1 and ITV2 (which began in late 2005 with Big Game TV simulcasts on late-night ITV2 and Quizmania on ITV1), the network decided to develop itself a larger presence in the gaming sector. This involved launching a channel into the new Gaming & Dating section of the Sky programme guide, and also removing Men & Motors from Freeview (moving some content across to ITV4 in the process) to free up a slot for the new channel, named ITV Play.

Whereas all of ITV’s previous branded channel launches had offered editorial content, the new station was an entirely commercial venture, designed to encourage viewers to phone and text in around the clock to take part in games and puzzles for prizes. ITV saw the channel as an opportunity to develop a new way of raising revenues at a time when traditional  sources such as spot advertising were under pressure due to audience fragmentation. However, while some viewers relished the chance to take part in  games, others felt  there was something underhand about a major broadcaster operating a channel funded out of viewers’ pockets, particularly when the games appeared to be quite one-sided, reliant on viewers’ use of dumb luck to second-guess which of numerous admissible answers the programme’s producers had deemed to be prize-winning. The now-infamous “rawlplugs and balaclava” incident on Quizmania underlined the gulf that had grown between editorial standards and pecuniary avarice, and led to a witch-hunt in which ITV Play was temporarily suspended, while an independent audit of its operations took place.

Although the auditors found that ITV had done nothing illegal, the storm did give the network an excuse to close the channel, which had been playing to far fewer viewers than they had anticipated and thus was not securing the level of revenue projected. ITV Play died largely unmourned less than a year after it opened. ITV Play was, thus far, ITV’s most recent launch of a main (non-timeshift) digital channel; there have been no further such experiments since.

BE HERE NOW: The way the ITV channels are today

Although ITV Play was a rare misfire from the commercial media behemoth, ITV’s digital channels have, on the whole, been a success story, with ITV2, ITV3 and ITV4 now all in the top 10 digital channels. Indeed, ITV has stated that the growth of its digital offering has helped offset the damage to ITV1 caused by the fragmentation of audiences in the switch to multichannel platforms.

The ITV stations have been able to identify and define themselves clearly in a crowded market, with the current, glossy, female-skewed ITV2 a much more marketable proposition than the channel’s scrappy construction of a decade ago; ITV3 a mature, intelligent collection of quality TV the way it used to be; and ITV4 a macho, metropolitan mix of films, sport and energetic entertainment.

The channels have enjoyed some success, with reruns joined by a rash of fresh new programming – a few have even secured an ITV1 repeat run. ITV3 has offered entertaining documentaries that take the channel’s appetite for classic TV as a starting point, such as Beyond a Joke and Stuart Maconie’s TV Towns. ITV2, meanwhile, has developed a selection of new comedy shows in various forms (sketches in Katy Brand’s Big Ass Show, panel game Celebrity Juice, and sitcoms FM and No Heroics). ITV2 also secured the services of one of the world’s most talked-about stars when it commissioned a UK version of Paris Hilton’s BFF, the MTV US-originated Apprentice-in-kitten-heels in which the socialite searches for a party partner.

CITV has also had successes, with hits such as Bookaboo, Horrid Henry and the new version of Emu with Toby Hull (son of Rod) taking guardianship of the uncontrollable bird. Men & Motors, meanwhile, still lives on, and in 2008 commissioned its first new programme in four years, Classic Gear (since replayed for Freeview users on ITV4.)

The CITV channel, is, however, no longer available on Freeview in Wales, due to its move to a non-Wales slot previously occupied by defunct Disney-owned entertainment channel abc1. This in turn allowed ITV4 to join ITV2 and ITV3 in airing round-the-clock and has also led GMTV2 to shift from ITV2 to ITV4. ITV’s main digital channels have also launched timeshifted versions – ITV2 and ITV3 in October 2006 on satellite, ITV2 on Freeview in March 2007 (to replace ITV Play), and ITV4 on satellite in 2008. They give viewers further opportunity to catch ITV’s programmes and the ability to avoid clashes with other channels’ content. A timeshift for ITV1 has been proposed, but at time of writing this launch has been postponed.

Various EPG shift-ups on Freeview have put ITV4 on a slightly more prominent channel – 24 – though this is still behind the likes of Sky3, Virgin 1 and Dave (and will continue to be until something ahead of it in the line-up disappears.) The launch of Freesat, in which ITV is a partner, provided a key new distribution platform for all of ITV’s channels; although Freesat is today behind Freeview and Sky in terms of viewer numbers, it is likely to grow over time.

The ITV stations have also benefitted from the talented people behind the scenes, with Zai Bennett – the ITV2 controller credited with making that channel number one in the digital market – rewarded with a new role in charge of ITV’s whole network of multichannel services when the management structure of the stations was recently reorganised. Also recently reshuffled was the Freeview system, in a national retune that saw ITV3 and Five, and ITV4 and ITV2 +1, swap transmission slots. It did leave half a million Freeview users who only have a partial service without ITV3 and ITV4, but viewers who already receive all available channels will see no change.

TOMORROW’S WORLD: As switchover approaches, where is ITV heading?

So, what does the future hold for ITV? ITV5, at some point, one presumes, but until we get there, there’s still more that can be done with the current set.

ITV themselves have admitted  ITV4 needs more work, though it does provide an edgy, masculine, punchy presentation which, within the ITV portfolio, is unique to ITV4. The way forward, then, is for ITV4 to build itself an identity and edge which lifts it above the many other digital channels which aim at a male-leaning audience (such as Bravo, Dave, and ITV’s own Men & Motors). The channel has had acclaim for its sports coverage, and needs to translate the edge and urgency of this across the schedule. One thing that, for instance, Five’s digital channels have done to improve themselves is move content across their portfolio to find a mix which fits (for instance shifting Joey and Everybody Hates Chris from Five USA to Fiver), and ITV can learn from this. Some of the edgy lifestyle and comedy content which has aired on ITV2 (Office Monkey, FM, Jack Osbourne: Adrenaline Junkie) would probably also have fit on ITV4, for instance. Additionally, taking on board some of the lessons learned in making ITV2 the huge success it has become can presumably be ported across to ITV4, and this may now happen now that Zai Bennett is pulling the strings at both stations.

ITV3, meanwhile, has benefitted from the rich TV drama and comedy archive  British broadcasters have built up over the last few decades, and isn’t afraid of buying in shows from other sources including the BBC to supplement ITV’s own library. The channel has become a success with its intelligent, mature, engaging mix of classics. This should continue, but it is a shame that engaging factual content (such as Survival) appears to have been disposed of, as this content would enhance and expand the channel’s range. ITV3 has carried some excellent, intelligent and entertaining original commissions, such as Beyond a Joke and Stuart Maconie’s TV Towns: more of this sort of thing would be very welcome, as would network screenings of some of ITV’s library of regional shows (like Meridian’s Country Ways or the Suggs-fronted Carlton series Disappearing London) – although ITV’s move away from non-news regional programming may hamper this, these are often interesting formats which would appeal to the mature audience ITV3 serves. It will also be interesting to see what ITV’s decision to move away from expensive drama production towards more cost-effective programming will have on ITV3 in the longer term.

ITV2, meanwhile, may appear airheaded to the more analytical viewer, but there are some sharp minds behind the scenes that have steered the channel to success. There have been occasions in recent times that an ITV2 show has secured more viewers than the lowest-rated show on one of the ‘big five’, and the blend of emotion, drama, shock and froth that the channel brews up is very in tune with the social desires of modern young people. The fast-moving nature of the media makes it difficult to predict where ITV2 will go next, but if it stays in touch with its audience and reflects their tastes well it should continue its phenomenal performance.

One arena where ITV could improve its communication, particularly with young audiences, is online. ITV’s web services have always lived in the shadow of rivals (particularly the BBC’s), but with a little investment and imagination could be tweaked and teased to take lessons from social network sites, BBC iPlayer and others, and use these to help build communities of interest and word-of-mouth around ITV programmes.

The network could also further develop and enhance the ITV Player to reflect the growing demand for online catch-up services. ITV could perhaps enter into partnerships with web firms similar to those already forged by the BBC with YouTube and others, in order to put their content in front of the audience and encourage organic buzz to grow around shows. This would help ITV regain the status it had for many years, where people would discuss their favourite TV shows the following day around the watercooler or in the playground. Digital fragmentation has made this TV-based bonding difficult, but new technology is bringing it back in a new form.

The changing face of the media may have robbed ITV of the near-monopoly it had on mainstream commercial television, but it still has a key part to play in encouraging and developing quality original programming in the UK, with a heritage and identity that very few digital broadcasters are able to live up to. ITV can therefore be a standard-bearer in an era when quality has been fragmented by quantity: its digital operations can help deliver  quality in a new way.