MAIN FEATURE: Staying in the game - Terrestrial stations are having to hone their broadcast strategies and get the message across that they can give licence payers value for money, amid the climate of choice created by digital, says Maggie Brown

These are tricky times for the UK’s terrestrial broadcasters. It’s not just that the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 are under siege, as they battle for a positive press and the share of coverage and attention for their programmes. The real problem is that they are caught with one foot in the past, at a time of rapid transition.

These are tricky times for the UK’s terrestrial broadcasters. It’s

not just that the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 are under siege, as

they battle for a positive press and the share of coverage and attention

for their programmes. The real problem is that they are caught with one

foot in the past, at a time of rapid transition.

It’s no accident that there’s a great deal of heart searching, and

changes in both corporate communications and programme publicity

policies at all these networks, with a more targeted, less scattergun

approach winning favour.

BBC Television controller of publicity Sally Osman who, since arriving

in February, has reorganised her 100-strong PR team, says: ’We have got

to be much much smarter. But, while being more strategic, we also have

to promote the range of output. That’s what the BBC is about.’

At Channel 4 the aim of chief press officer Matt Baker, who heads a team

of 20, is for it to be ’the most talked about, noisiest TV channel’. But

it is also taking the lead from the BBC and Channel 5 in being more


There have also been issues, such as the alleged fabrication of

documentaries, which all the networks have been anxious to play


At ITV the network centre has taken Channel 5’s lead in deciding which

handful of key programmes to throw resources behind with on-screen


Apart from that ITV head of press Carol Millward only uses outside PR

agencies in exceptional circumstances.

ITV is also beefing up its in-house lobbying operations, with the

appointment of Nicola Howson, from Flextech, as director of corporate


But the degree of rethinking going on explains why the influential Royal

Television Society’s Cambridge Broadcasting Convention this summer had a

session on branding, chaired by Greg Dyke, the BBC director general

designate. This built on the first session on PR and marketing at last

year’s Edinburgh Television Festival.

Multi-channel television - with up to 120 channels, tiers of

subscription, and pay-per-view - is available to more than 30 per cent

of the population, with blanket coverage now the Government’s policy

objective for 2010.

The ultra-competitive market created has totally changed conditions,

including the cost of buying key strands, star talent, writers, films

and sporting events. The BBC has doubled its sports spend in the last

five years, but you’d never know it from the outcry when it has failed

to renegotiate contracts, such as Test Match cricket.

Meanwhile ITV, under the guidance of network chief executive Richard

Eyre, is well advanced on a fairly successful damage limitation exercise

to reverse the decline and push up audience share to 39 per cent this

year, but only within a carefully defined period of prime time viewing,

freed of the News at Ten.

Apart from Channel 5, traditional broadcasters have all started their

own niche services in a bid to hold on to their dominance, with varying

degrees of enthusiasm and financial commitment.

But at the heart of the terrestrial network’s dilemma, is the fact they

are still expected to cater for the majority who pay the licence fee (at

pounds 101, above the crucial pain barrier of pounds 100), and do not

have the multi-channel option.

So they labour under heavy regulation, while watching key groups such as

young families with children, migrate across to digital. They are

pumping out mixed schedules, containing religion, children’s programmes

and news and current affairs, as required. But the commercial channels

are increasingly chafing at restrictions, hence the big increase in

lobbying, and programmers veering towards a pure entertainment schedule

in peak time, typified by ITV’s scheduling of Who Wants to be a

Millionaire? - while the BBC, especially BBC1, is being asked to

redefine itself as an aspirational public service broadcaster, aiming

just above peoples’ heads.

How do you communicate all of this? ’It’s hard, very labour-intensive

work,’ says Osman, who points out that she has no money for marketing

programmes, and that the use of outside agencies is rare. She says the

plus side is that there are huge numbers of magazines and papers eager

to fill pages, whatever the editorial columns are saying.

One of the biggest communications tasks for the BBC this year has been

the consultation over proposals for its new digital services. The

proposals are controversial: they include a new children’s channel,

interactive content for its existing BBC Knowledge channel, an on-line

news service for schools, and its own electronic programme guide, to

help viewers around.

The proposals are not costed. But they are designed to flesh out its

case for a ’buoyancy’ of income, rather than the current, broadly static

position, in order to flourish in the new digital environment.

The consultation runs alongside another launched by the Department of

Culture, Media and Sport on the Davies review panel report, ’Funding the

BBC’, published in August, which recommended a mixture of ’self help’,

more transparent finances, and a tapered digital fee for households as

they connect, providing an extra pounds 150-pounds 200 million a year -

at best a third of what the BBC asked for. It has been snubbed.

The PR challenges faced by the BBC were immense. The commercial sector

united in opposition against the digital fee, saying it would slow

take-up. The latest stance is that the Government is preparing to scrap

plans for a digital TV levy and restore the link between the standard

licence fee and inflation.

There is also outrage among dedicated commercial channels such as

Nickelodeon and Fox Kids over the proposed children’s channel. Meanwhile

commercial broadcasters are also mocking the BBC’s claims of poverty.

They say its duties must be more carefully defined. There is a firm

belief the BBC is not getting enough ’bang for its buck’ as far as

programme spending goes.

However, it’s not all gloom. BSkyB’s complaint to the EC over the BBC’s

free service, News 24, has not been upheld. That’s a big boost for a

children’s channel. There are real fears about preserving the best

traditions and quality of programming in the digital age, and there

remains a basic bedrock of goodwill towards the BBC, identified by

Davies, and also obvious at a key vote at the Cambridge Broadcasting

Convention, which supported a motion that it would be adequately funded.

The BBC’s desire to stretch the licence fee ever further is also

provoking suspicion of undue empire building.

Another seminal terrestrial broadcasting event of the past year was the

well publicised ending of News at Ten, which has fed the public

perception that the quality of mainstream television is falling.

ITV won the battle for a 6.30pm Nightly News last November, after much

careful preparation and lobbying of all interest groups including

advertisers, despite the personal opposition of Tony Blair and culture

secretary Chris Smith.

The Independent Television Commission, unwilling to tie the hands of

ITV, over-rode the preferences of viewers, though only with a split

decision, believing overall the new strands of films, extended drama and

new 10pm comedy would eventually have more appeal.

But, as it turned out, it has been a (limited) public relations

disaster, in so far as opinion formers go. Even Zenith Media, as

hardnosed as any advertising air time buying house must be, says in its

current autumn TV preview ’it was not necessary’.

However, ITV’s prime time ratings rally, combined with new hits, such as

Cold Feet, and international awards for its lavish Hornblower dramas

have softened some critics.

ITV is fortunate that chief executive Richard Eyre has outstanding

qualities of diplomacy and integrity: he was selected to give TV’s

important MacTaggart lecture this year and used it as a platform to

explain that the fierce inevitability of market forces would ring the

death knell for public service broadcasting, though not kill off serious

programme making of interest to the public. Eyre will be a tough act to

follow when he leaves to slip into Dyke’s shoes at Pearson TV, but he

has also had luck.

ITV’s discomfort at the poor performance of regional programming, and

new current affairs programme, Tonight has been dwarfed by the ongoing

negative coverage of the BBC.

It has been a terrible year for the corporation on all fronts. Its

message, that the audience share of BBC1, now running permanently below

30 per cent, is not by any means the sole measure of success, has not

permeated the press. Nor has the perception that schedules rely heavily

on repeats been reversed, and the BBC’s insistence that it has lost only

three big sports events has fallen on deaf ears.

These problems have been compounded by the tortuous process of selecting

a new director general, and the now glacial speed of handover between

Sir John Birt and Dyke. Experienced communications experts outside of

the BBC say that it can only start to turn things around when Dyke is in

place, and when the organisation is certain what the core messages are

going to be. Then it may still have a lot going for it.

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