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Tuesday, 23 October, 2001, 12:02 GMT 13:02 UK
ITV's failed football gamble
Nick Higham
By media correspondent Nick Higham

Television channels are always being urged to take risks, be bold, try new things.

Well, ITV was certainly bold when it decided to schedule its successor to Match of the Day at 7pm on Saturday evening.

Des Lynam
The Premiership: Labelled a "Desaster"
It seems a shame the gamble failed.

In the weeks since its launch in August, The Premiership managed an average audience of 4.3m viewers, or 25% of viewing in its timeslot, according to rivals' analyses.

That compared with an average ITV audience of 7.3m, and a share of 36% in the same period last year.

Winter nights

To begin with, ITV executives argued that the programme needed more time to develop an audience in an unfamiliar slot.

Once the winter nights drew in and the big name teams were playing regularly the audience would rise, the argument ran.

BBC executives can be forgiven if they take some delight in seeing ITV fall flat on its face

But those same executives, led by ITV's director of channels David Liddiment (effectively the network's programme director) and controller of sport Brian Barwick, have now reluctantly decided that time was a luxury they could not afford.

Barwick argued for the show to remain in peak time while Liddiment was in favour of moving it.

Barwick will only admit to "a difference of views".

Week's break

Minds may have been concentrated by last Saturday's edition. Despite featuring three of the most attractive and best known teams in the country, Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal, the average audience for the show was only 4.6m.

Cilla Black's Blind Date
Cilla Black's Blind Date returns on ITV
So the last edition of the programme to go out in the early evening will be broadcast on Saturday, 3 November.

After a week's break for internationals, Premier League fixtures resume on 17 November - when ITV's programme presented by Des Lynam and friends will go out at its new time of 10.30pm.

The newspapers have depicted the decisions as a "Desaster" and a fiasco. But it has been forced on ITV by economic circumstances.

The network is facing an advertising slump: November's revenue is expected to be 20% down on last year and December's could be even worse.

Commercial sense

With ever-growing competition from new channels, plus the huge costs of supporting their loss-making pay-TV service, ITV Digital, the network's main shareholders, Carlton and Granada, could no longer afford a programme which delivered such poor ratings in such an important slot.

The Premiership's launch was billed as an attempt to break the mould of Saturday night viewing. Had it come off it would have made commercial sense as well.

Because men watch less television than women, advertisers will pay more to appear in programmes they do watch, like football.

ITV's traditional early evening Saturday schedule, dominated for years by Cilla Black's Blind Date, attracted a predominantly female audience.

Audience collapse

If The Premiership had managed to keep those women viewers while attracting many more men, plus children and teenagers, the network would have been quids in.

Early editions of the show were criticised - notably for including too much talk and too little action

In the event, the proportion of men in the early evening audience did indeed rise dramatically.

But the audience collapse was so severe that some weeks the absolute number of men watching was less than the numbers who used to watch Cilla.

And women switched off or over in their droves.

BBC One was the main beneficiary. Last weekend 7.1m watched the gameshow Dog Eat Dog, 8.7m watched the talent show Star for the Night and 9.3m watched the National Lottery.

'Outstanding television'

Early editions of the show were criticised - notably for including too much talk and too little action.

The programme was tweaked, but Brian Barwick stoutly defends the style and content of recent editions, calling the programme "outstanding television".

Presenter Des Lynam said he was disappointed at the decision to move it, but had been reassured it was being taken for economic, not editorial reasons.

Contrary to rumour, Barwick says ITV's contract with the Premier League did not oblige it to broadcast the programme in peak time.

The network merely promised a start time somewhere between 7pm and 10.30pm.

Fall flat

At the BBC there has been some gloating.

After all, ITV outbid the corporation in the battle for the rights to Premier League highlights, spending 183m over three years.

BBC executives can be forgiven if they take some delight in seeing ITV fall flat on its face.

But there is a downside for the corporation. For the past few weeks BBC One has been shooting at an open goal on Saturday evenings.

But on 10 November Blind Date returns: normal service - in which BBC programmes are likely to do rather less well against ITV - will shortly be resumed.

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