ITV says it’s beating the UK TV ad market but where is the promised digital breakthrough?

First the good news: ITV is slightly ahead of last year’s (good numbers) thanks to ads in programmes like X Factor and Downton Abbey and the strong autumn performance of the Rugby World Cup (which only happens every four years of course).

And the UK’s biggest free-to-air broadcaster is being run like a proper company with a restored dividend, sales slightly up at £1.52bn in the first nine months of 2011 and anticipated pre-tax end year profits of £321m, up from last year’s £267m. The company has even reduced its net debt from £188m to £43m.

All this with CEO Adam Crozier (pictured), formerly the boss of Royal Mail and before that the Football Association and Saatchi & Saatchi London, being extremely cautious about Christmas ad sales.

But nowhere in the company’s confident utterances (it says it’s doing better than other advertising-funded broadcasters although not, of course, subscription-fuelled Sky) do we hear much, if anything, about the promised digital revolution that was supposed to ‘re-balance’ the company away from horrid, unreliable advertising.

That’s because, you suspect, there isn’t one and re-jigging ITV’s sales department with the appointments of Fru Hazlitt and Simon Daglish (who both spent time in senior roles at Yahoo) has completely failed to wean ITV away from its dependence on big-rating TV programmes.

In truth it’s never likely to happen. Online revenues at and the like will never be more than a drop in the ocean for a company turning over £2bn a year. The official debut of product placement doesn’t seem to have had very much impact either.

Unless, of course, Crozier gets his cheque book out. With such low debt ITV could well afford to but the last time it tried to expand in digital it bought Friends Reunited for about £200m shortly before it, and other early stage social media sites like MySpace and, to an extent, Yahoo, tanked under the twin assaults of Facebook and Google.

So should we be expecting a bold announcement soon then? Or is ITV just hoping that we forget about all this digital nonsense.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.