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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 September 2005, 07:28 GMT 08:28 UK
ITV cheerful as it hits its 50th
By Torin Douglas
BBC News media correspondent

As ITV marks its 50th anniversary, the mood hardly seems one of celebration.

"Ratings in decline and public service in retreat" might be one way of summing up the state of Britain's biggest commercial broadcaster.

Ant and Dec
Ant and Dec have fronted some of ITV's big successes
Yet in the past few days ITV's chief executive Charles Allen has been radiating confidence and bonhomie in his dealings with the City, rival broadcasters and journalists.

What has he got to be so cheerful about?

Not a month goes by without a new rash of headlines proclaiming ITV's "worst ever" day or week or month for audiences.

Celebrity Love Island and Celebrity Wrestling linger in the memory.

And Ofcom has just cut the amount of religious and regional programming the network must provide - just as its anniversary has reminded viewers of ITV's heyday as a public service broadcaster.

ITV's News at Ten
ITV's News at Ten was not in ITV's 50 Greatest Shows programme
The days seem long gone when, in return for "a licence to print money", it was made to produce an ambitious range of drama, documentaries, current affairs, religion, arts and children's programmes.

Examples abounded in ITV's 50 Greatest Shows voted for by viewers.

It included such cerebral fare as The World At War, Hillsborough, The Naked Civil Servant, Brideshead Revisited, World In Action, Death on the Rock and The Jewel in The Crown.

More popular shows also featured, including Coronation Street, Who Wants To be A Millionaire, Pop Idol and I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.

Lord Birt - a former ITV boss as well as BBC director-general - seemed to sound the death-knell for such challenging programming in his recent McTaggart Lecture at Edinburgh TV Festival.

Celebrity Love Island
Celebrity Love Island was derided by television critics
"The main consequence of the explosive growth in the number of television channels is that ITV - whose share has particularly tumbled - is clinging onto the public service tradition by its fingertips," he said.

"When analogue switch-off occurs, and when ITV is more or less on a level playing field with a welter of commercial competitors, it will no longer be, in any meaningful sense, a public service broadcaster."

It's a commonly-held view, particularly since the demise of News at Ten - a notable omission from ITV's 50 Greatest Shows.

But Melvyn Bragg, another TV peer, hit back, describing Birt as "a beached grandee" who didn't watch enough television.

As well as his own South Bank Show, just starting a new season, Bragg cited religious programmes presented by Rageh Omaar, twice-weekly episodes of Tonight With Trevor McDonald in peaktime, and a scoop-laden ITV News as evidence that ITV's public service ethos was alive and well.

Celebrity Wrestling
Celebrity Wrestling fared badly in TV ratings
But what about the decline in ratings?

Charles Allen concedes that ITV1's audience share is going down, but says that's because viewers are switching to digital TV and have greater choice - not because ITV1's programmes are under-performing.

"If you look at our share this year in analogue homes, it's 52.1%" he told journalists.

"That's virtually the same as last year. But in digital homes - particularly on Sky - we get a much smaller share."

Isn't that a problem, now that the government says the whole country must switch to digital TV by the year 2012?

Not any more, says Allen, because ITV now has a multi-channel strategy to deal with it.

Jack and Vera Duckworth, played by Bill Tarmey and Liz Dawn
The soap Coronation Street is enduringly popular

Putting behind it the disaster of ITV Digital, the loss-making pay-TV service, it is now building a family of free-to-air TV channels, alongside ITV1 and the ITV News Channel.

ITV2, aimed primarily at 16- to 34-year-old women, and ITV3, for the over-35s, are already the two fastest-growing digital channels, accounting for 55% of the growth in multichannel viewing.

ITV4 will be launched on 1 November, aimed at 16- to 34-year-old men - and there are also plans for an ITV children's channel.

All these will be carried on the Freeview digital terrestrial platform.

ITV is also launching a Freesat TV service in partnership with the BBC, and new services for mobile phones and broadband internet, including clips from soaps, dating, gaming and shopping, from which it can gain extra income.

Facing the future

ITV1's advertising revenue may have gone down recently, but its total income went up - and so did its profits.

Not so long ago, there was talk of ITV being bought by an American group.

Not any more.

Analysts say its finances have improved so much that no one could make money by taking it over.

Its programming heyday may be behind it, but it's in better shape to face the future.

Happy birthday, ITV.


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