The chief executive of ITV, who under pressure from shareholders recently announced that he would step down from the leading commercial television channel in the UK, took the opportunity of an annual industry lecture to deliver a parting shot to his competitors while painting a pessimistic vision of the future of public service broadcasting.

Charles Allen was delivering the prestigious MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival.

“Running ITV is a doddle,” he said. “Not because the challenges aren’t real or substantial but because there is so much free advice on tap.”

He suggested that there was no need to pay the millions that the BBC spends each year on consultants when a pound at the newsagents “gets you pretty much all the ITV strategy you could ever need”.

The networked generation
“We’ve catapulted from an era of networks to what Ofcom recently called the ‘networked generation’,” he said. “Be in no doubt: we are in the middle of seismic — and accelerating — changes.”

Charles Allen gave his theme as what he called the big question in British broadcasting — a billion pound question: “How can we continue to enjoy the breadth and range and quality of British TV that we all grew up with, the programmes that moved us, the dramas that changed us, the shows that just made our lives a bit more of a laugh?”

“For decades, the consensus has been of an old-fashioned broadcaster in decline,” he conceded of ITV. “The doomsayers predict a vicious circle: advertisers spend less on ITV; ITV spends less on programmes; viewers spend less time with ITV.”

“To the Cassandra columnists, a year on from its 50th birthday, ITV has lurched from mid-life crisis to a premature death bed and switchover is seen as the final nail in the ITV coffin.”

However, Allen argued that rumours of ITV’s death are greatly exaggerated. ITV1 is still the number one UK channel in peak time, with more people watching the channel than its five largest commercial competitors combined.

“ITV is not a legacy analogue business,” he declared, referring to its digital multichannel strategy. “In digital homes, we have three of the top 10 commercial channels; in Freeview, four of the top 10.”

According to Allen, “ITV recognised the realities of the shift to digital some time ago. We focused on the destination — the fully digital world of 2012. And we launched a radical strategy based, not on minimising the pain of the journey, but the value of the destination.”

Public service broadcasting
Allen concentrated his attack on the wider issue of how the established broadcasting ecology may be reshaped by all this change and what will be left in the end.

For this he returned to the traditional theme of British television executives, the future of public service broadcasting.

“We’re still applying sticking plasters to analogue PSB, rather than developing a sustainable digital model. It’s all about tweaks, in-flight adjustments, rather than putting commercial PSB on a secure footing for the future.”

“The reality is that the digital transition is one of tremendous opportunity for public service broadcasting. However, it will not be measured in hours and minutes on a handful of analogue television channels.”

He said that over the last few years the “PSB decoy” has obscured the real challenge and a much bigger question, a billion pound question.

Digital danger
The danger, he warned, was that following the transition to digital television there will be nothing at all worth watching. “We’ll all have a nice digital television and a shiny set top box. We’ll have dozens of channels, we may even have high definition, but we won’t actually have anything we want to watch.”

“The billion pound question is much wider than ITV,” he suggested. “It’s about investment in original production across the commercial television industry.
He questioned whether the production structure inherited from the analogue era is now fit for purpose.

Channel 4
Singling out Channel 4 in particular, he described it as “behaving like a 25-year-old still living at home, dipping into mum’s purse, even when it’s got a fat pay check in its back pocket.”

“Is it not high time the enfant terrible of UK broadcasting grew up?” he asked.

Channel 4 immediately responded in a statement saying: “In the week when one of ITV’s own executives called its flagship channel unwatchable, it would have been better for Charles to use his last industry platform to set out a vision for ITV’s own commercial and creative reinvention.”

Charles Allen admitted that “Living through all this change, constant evolution, technological revolution, running a media company can seem slightly terrifying.”

He compared his experience to that of Guy Coma, the man who recently turned up for a job interview at the BBC and ended up mistakenly being interviewed live on News 24 as a new media expert.

“You want to say ‘I’m sorry there’s been a dreadful mistake, I don’t know what is going on here,'” he said. “But it feels like that would be a little rude. So you sit in the chair and gamely try to answer the questions as they come at you and after a while you think ‘Hey! Maybe I do understand this stuff a bit after all — maybe it’s not so hard as they make out'”.

He concluded by saying: “if we just cross our fingers and trust the old systems and structures will last into the new world — with a tweak here and an in-flight adjustment there, we are going to be sorely, sorely disappointed.”

“We won’t just have lost the PSB high ground. A significant area of the whole rich ecology of UK programming will be under water.”

Charles Allen, the chief executive of ITV plc, delivered the annual MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, 25 August 2006.