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Wednesday, 25 April, 2001, 17:00 GMT 18:00 UK
Will ITV website capture the net?
ITV.co.uk home page
The existing ITV site: less popular than Channel 5's
The quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire has, on screen, created two instant tycoons.

But behind the scenes, the project is proving more liberal with its fortunes.

Besides bringing riches to its creators and production company, the show has helped TV stations worldwide achieve record ratings, while firms ranging from Hamleys to Eidos have gained from board or video game spin-offs.

Now the show is proving the centrepiece of one of the most significant internet start-ups ever to hit the UK market.

All in one

As part of a strategy to integrate ITV's digital and terrestrial channels with the digital network ONdigital, the networks' backers Carlton and Granada will launch the website ITV.com.

Chris Tarrant, quiz master, Who Wants to be a Millionaire
Who Wants to be a Millionaire: a cross-media and transglobal hit
The intention is to have one internet address to provide services such as listings, news and sports information offered by the existing ITV.co.uk site, plus allow visitors easy access to official websites for TV programmes such as Coronation Street and Emmerdale.

It will also offer facilities such as celebrity chats, streaming of key events, and consumer polls.

In short, it will bring together the vast range of different ITV related sites under the one banner, in a fashion similar to BBC Online.

"Through an enhanced range of... services, extensive cross promotion and access to almost 50 million viewers, ITV.com expects to become one of the UK's overall top 10 favourite sites," Granada and Carlton said in a joint statement.

Key to their achieving this ambition will be the success of Who Wants to be a Millionaire (WWTBAM), web-style.

Below Channel 5

The problem ITV.com faces is that it is coming to the market perhaps two years late, said Rebecca Ulph, analyst at technology consultants Forrester.

"ITV is right to join all its range of sites into one," Ms Ulph said.

"I would imagine a number of people have got annoyed searching for, say, the official Coronation Street website all over the place.

"Now people will just be able to go to one ITV address."

But by delaying the unification, the network has allowed competitors to steal a march in the internet market.

In terms of users, ITV.co.uk ranks fifth, below the Channel 5 website, in the internet rankings among UK TV companies.

"I would not imagine ITV would be happy about that," Ms Ulph said.

The hook

As for winning a top 10 place, ITV.co.uk attracted 271,000 unique users in February, about 10% of the number who visited BBC.co.uk, the UK's eighth most popular site.

Top 10 UK domains
1: MSN.com, 6.22m
2: Yahoo.com, 4.99m
3: Microsoft.com, 4.33m
4: Freeserve.com, 4.14m
5: MSN.co.uk, 2.95m
6: Passport.com, 3.80m
7: Yahoo.co.uk, 3.00m
8: BBC.co.uk, 2.95m
9: MSN Messenger Service, 2.46m
10: AOL Proprietary, 2.42m
Data: nos of unique visitors, March Source: Jupiter MMXI
The top websites also seem to be consolidating their positions, with relatively little position switching between months.

What ITV.com needs to climb the rankings is a way of attracting waves, rather than ripples, of surfers.

"What Who Wants to be a Millionaire will provide this type of hook," Ms Ulph said.

In the six weeks since its launch the show's internet game has attracted three times the traffic as the ragbag of all Carlton and Granada programme sites put together.

"What ITV will be hoping is that, with the integrated site, people will visit the Millionaire pages and go off to look at other parts of the site," Mr Ulph said.

Borders crumble

The idea of basing marketing efforts for a range of services around a single 'spearhead' product has already been used to good advantage in the entertainment world.

The BBC has recently focused marketing around the headline game show The Weakest Link.

And one of the reasons Channel 5 has attained a relatively high internet presence has been the success of a multi-media marketing drive at the end of last year.

"Channel 5 based games and competitions on blockbuster movies," Ms Ulph said.

"You had to watch the film and then enter the competition by e-mail or SMS (text message)."

And we should indeed expect to see the borders between traditional television and digital and internet services break down even further.

Brand awareness

Such change will be driven not just by technological factors, which will see more and more services driven from one screen, but by a desire among commercial stations to drag advertisers into the new media age.

Gerry Murphy, chief executive, Carlton Communications
Gerry Murphy: "The potential is huge"
"Some more traditional companies have proved less willing to advertise on the internet," Ms Ulph said.

"What ITV will be looking for is for the likes of Cadburys, which sponsors the Coronation Street TV programme, to sponsor the Coronation Street website too."

Advertisers can then exploit the possibilities of web marketing, which extends far beyond discredited banner ads to the likes of targeted e-mails, and a place in cross-media "brand awareness" campaigns, Ms Ulph said.

Or, in the words of Carlton's chief executive Gerry Murphy, the ITV shake-up will "provide better value for advertisers - the potential here is huge".

Uphill struggle

His opposite number at Granada, Steve Morrison, sees ITV becoming "the home of entertainment for everyone, everywhere".

It looks an uphill struggle for ITV.com to deliver the internet side of this vision when it does not, as Ms Ulph says, boast the range of services of the BBC, nor its foreign presence - key in an international medium.

But ITV has proved before that it can catch up with, and even overtake, Auntie Beeb.

Can it do so again? No doubt Messers Morrison and Murphy will, like WWTBAM contestants, excercise their option to "ask the audience".

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