Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Sharpening the axe at ITV

Britain's leading commercial terrestrial TV channel is due to announce last year's financial results, along with a plan for the way ahead. 2008 was not a brilliant twelve months for ITV, and the next few years look worse. Advertising revenue is down, thanks to the rise of the internet and multi-channel digital viewing. The recession and stock market instability are helping to create a pension fund black hole. All in all, things ain't too pretty.

Jobs losses look likely [ditto rival channel Five, where a third of the workforce is facing a cull]. The programme budget is up for grabs, after being considered sacrosanct for years. What does this mean for TV drama, my area of particular interest? Long-running shows are getting axed [Wire in the Blood] or production mothballed [Heartbeat, The Royal] with no likely return date. Belts tighten, opportunities shrink by the day.

In truth these troubles won't be evident on screen for a while. There's a backlog of material waiting to be screened, with enough Heartbeart and The Royal in stock to keep Sunday nights cosy well into 2010. The crunch could show up in other places first. How long can shows like Emmerdale [six episodes a week] and Coronation Street [five] sustain output with ever-shrinking budgets? You can only stretch resources so far before something snaps.

Two Septembers ago I went for a storylining job at Emmerdale. Didn't get the gig, but spent a fascinating day at the Leeds production office. It's looking likely that building could be mothballed, and the Emmerdale team relocated to their exterior sets outside Leeds. That's going to affect hundreds, even thousands of people when you factor in all the ancilliary staff and services. Spare a thought for them as you read tomorrow's headlines.

Meanwhile the BBC is fast emerging as the only game in town for new TV drama. Channel 4 is grappling with its own financial black hole, while Five has never been much of a factor for British-made drama. Ironically, children's TV is looking vaguely healthy again after several years when it seemed dead and buried. Niche digital channels are proving there is a future for new shows. So there is hope, but you'd better be ready to play the long game.

No comments: