MEDIA ANALYSIS: ITV net relaunch focuses on locals

ITV has struggled to compete with the fresh programming and internet offerings of Channel 4 and the BBC, but now it is fighting back with a £20m broadband service. Robert Gray assesses ITV’s plans for digital domination.

As the spiritual home of mainstream television programming such as Coronation Street, Emmerdale, This Morning and The Bill, ITV has come to be seen as a broadcaster that is somewhat staid and unadventurous.

ITV has also trailed behind rivals such as the BBC and Channel 4 in delivering innovative platforms and technologies to address the changing way video content is being consumed in this age of media convergence. For example, the BBC has trumpeted the development of its iPlayer service while Channel 4 has been even more enthusiastic in promoting its video-on-demand offering, 4oD.

But this month, ITV unveiled plans to win back lost ground with a £20 million ­investment in a new broad­band ser­vice offering live streaming, ‘catch up’ programming, archive material and exclusive content.

The new-look ITV.com is due to go live shortly and recently installed chairman Michael Grade claims it will ‘create a service unrivalled by any ­other commercial broadcaster, anywhere in the world’.

Rewired and revamped
A team of 40 online content editors and multimedia producers has been employed to work closely with ITV channel commissioners and programme makers. Broadband content will be delivered to viewers using ‘click and watch’ technology and instant free access that requires no complicated software downloads.

All of this is laudable and incontestably long overdue: the ITV.com site has looked dated for a while. But how much use will it prove to be for PROs? Being able to watch live sport on the office computer or dredge up old episodes of Prime Suspect or Inspector Morse on demand from the ITV archives is hardly the greatest boon for the PR practitioner.

However, closer analysis of ITV’s strategy shows that once you get past the fanfare relating to broadband delivery, there are some interesting developments in the areas of regional news and user-generated content.

Indeed, anyone can become a citizen correspondent, commenting and submitting their own ‘witness’ news clips to www.itv.com/news or emailing pictures and videos to uploaded@itn.com.

Once the revamped site is up and running it will help drive traffic to ITV’s burgeoning www.itvlocal.com online regional TV service. This was initially piloted in a low-key way for the Meridian region, but March 2007 saw the London and Central regions come on-stream, with the other ITV regions in England and Wales to be rolled out in the coming months. TV news bulletins are also directing consumers online for further information on certain stories.

‘We sit side by side with ITV regional news teams and we do a lot of added value material,’ says Local London channels manager Nick Haworth.

‘When material is shot by London Tonight but only a short bit is transmitted on TV, we can run extended interviews on the website. For instance, when Prince announced he was playing in London, the report ran for 25 seconds on London Tonight but we were able to show the whole press conference.’

There is a two-tiered approach to what can broadly be termed user-generated content.

Consumers are able to upload their own footage to a Viewer Videos part of the site, but what is likely to be of greater relevance to PROs is the use of local partners to deliver content of interest to communities.

On ITV Local London this area of the site is called London Life and is broken down by London borough, with groups including local authorities, charities and arts organisations encouraged to provide content of local interest.

‘We want to see organisations with stories of editorial merit using video,’ says Haworth. ‘The potential for video news releases will increase enor­mously. We want to see local authorities filming events. We want to raise awareness of what’s going on in ­communities.’

On the ball
A recently struck partnership with ­Mediabox, the government’s £6m fund for young people, will see documentaries, short films and video podcasts from young people added by late summer.

‘I’m a big fan of media convergence,’ says Weber Shandwick head of broadcast Nick Rabin. ‘I think ITV is right to be doing this. The current itv.com looks tired, out of date and unimaginative, and reinforces some negative impressions people have of ITV. I think the changes will present a lot of opportunities to PR people if they are smart.’

Rabin sees big possibilities for branded content as long as it is subtle and has editorial merit. He suggests that providing content that, for example, chimes with a storyline on Coronation Street or an issue explored on This Morning might be a means of maximising interest.

‘A lot of the local newspaper dailies and weeklies are putting video content on their sites and to some extent are stealing audience from TV,’ says ­Dominic Shales, co-founder of Paratus Communications, which works with clients such as Camelot, B&Q, Waitrose and National Express, often on a regional basis.

‘This focus on ITV Local is good from a PR perspective. You are getting a niche audience, but there’s the chance to get more time and help to get the key messages across.’

While ITV.com has hitherto been less than impressive, it is worth bearing in mind that, at a group level, ITV has a considerable social media presence, having purchased Friends Re­united 18 months ago for £120m. It has been slow out of the blocks with its main website, but now at last its intent is clear and it is bowing to the demands of the Web 2.0 age.

And if the viewer videos turn out to be dreary, you can always watch Inspector Morse.

CONTACTS

Marcus Bennett
ITV Local Central – News Editor
T 0121 634 4117
E marcus.bennett@itv.com

James Hirst
ITV Local London – News Editor
T 020 7430 4547
E james.hirst@itv.com

Sharon Watson
ITV Local Meridian – News Editor
T 01489 442000
E sharon.watson@itv.com

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