Analysis: A contest for compulsive viewing

As the major channels unveil their autumn schedules to tackle declining audience share, Sarah Robertson investigates some of the tactics deployed by broadcasters to get their programmes talked about.

As the evenings draw in and kids go back to school, Britain's TV channels try to convince the public to tune in to their programmes.

The all-important autumn season can make or break a channel's year, and tends to attract the biggest investment in fresh programming, be it through home-grown productions or new US imports. And with the proliferation of multi-channel TV, the crucial autumn schedule launches are becoming ever more competitive.

'The terrestrial channels are trying desperately to cling on to their market share and everyone is investing more in their publicity. The competition is hotting up in TV land,' says James Herring, managing director of Taylor Herring, which has worked for all five terrestrial channels.

ITV media relations manager Ruth Settle agrees that programme publicity is becoming more important in the multi-channel environment. 'The more information that journalists get about different channels, the more we need to spell out clearly our defining programmes,' she explains.

Best in show

Autumn schedule promotions therefore concentrate increasingly on flagship programmes, such as ITV's forthcoming drama Vincent, starring Ray Winston.

Broadcasters also use the scheduling itself as a tool to gain coverage.

'If there is an increasing amount of drama in our schedule then that is a story in itself,' says BBC2 head of publicity Laura Dumbrell.

The BBC held launch parties for each of its channels in July, fronted by a briefing from the channel controllers. Channel 4, meanwhile, split its autumn schedule launch day, held in London last month - a morning event for around 20 media correspondents, delivered by director of TV Kevin Lygo, was followed by an afternoon reception for 150 members of the consumer press. Elsewhere, Five left it late, launching its schedule at the Edinburgh TV Festival in August.

The PR strategies of Five and Sky lean towards promoting programmes in a way that 'says something' about the channels' brand.

In 2003, BSkyB started to reposition the Sky brand as more upmarket.

'Two years ago it was Jodie Marsh Laid Bare but now we are airing specially commissioned documentaries from writers such as Julie Burchill,' says BSkyB director of publicity Adrian Lee. Promoting autumn shows such as US series Weeds and 24 will help shift perceptions of the Sky brand, he adds.

Five is also pushing programmes that aim to portray it as a higher quality channel. Head of press Paul Leather says: 'We will promote shows that move people's perception of Five, that give a sense of it being a quality and well-established channel.'

The unveiling of schedules is followed by publicity for specific programmes: securing media coverage is often crucial for these shows to flourish. 'The success of I'm a Celebrity... depends on tabloid coverage,' says ITV controller of programme publicity Sallie Ryle.

'These programmes are made on the other side of the world, so you watch them before you go to bed and the next morning they are in the papers - if you've missed it you can catch up,' she adds.

Publicity for flagship soaps such as Coronation Street and EastEnders - the perennial staples for ITV and BBC1 respectively - focus on anniversaries and interesting storylines.

Targets for these are the tabloids, breakfast TV and daytime chat shows.

But more general programme promotions need to target a broader range of media outlets.

'Broadsheets are just as interested in TV programmes, which was demonstrated when we promoted our drama, Whatever Love Means, about Charles and Camilla,' says ITV head of publicity Janice Troup.

Non-TV columnists will also write about programmes if people are talking about them. BBC2's Dumbrell says: 'Programmes that attract a lot of publicity do not have a specific genre. PR-able programmes catch the imagination when they tap into a news story or wider issue.'

Sparking interest

Sky's launch of US plastic surgery drama Nip/Tuck attracted significant column inches from a range of non-TV journalists, while ITV's forthcoming documentary about the Moors murders has stoked controversy following a plea from killer Ian Brady for the programme not to air.

BSkyB's Lee says: 'Tackling an issue on which many people have a view will feed in to all sections of a newspaper and across the consumer press.'

All the major channels use PR agencies, except for ITV, which relies on a 70-strong publicity team to generate buzz around programmes. Sky uses agencies for unit (on-location), stunt, event and online publicity, while the BBC hires agencies to promote specific programmes.

However, a change in the law 18 months ago gave independent production companies new commercial rights, which means they can promote their programmes on their own.

And while the major channels with big in-house facilities will push priority programmes, non-priority shows tend to get ignored.

'There is a new marketplace in TV PR,' explains Herring. 'Independent (production) companies that do not have a say in their shows' transmission time are hiring agencies to promote the programmes.'

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