ITV gets back into the Monkey business

Britainís third channel is throwing off the past with a five-year plan to get modern, writes Julian Clover.

Given the history behind ITV, 50 years and counting, there is always a buzz around what the commercial broadcaster is planning. Last Friday, as news of the pay-TV plans began to emerge, I read of one analyst talking of 50 HD channels that would rival Sky. Another said ITV would launch a channel focussing on men; presumably like Men and Motors, the last of the old Granada Sky Broadcasting channels that ITV had closed a few weeks back in order to make way for ITV1 HD.

It is HD versions of ITV2, 3 and 4 that are leading the broadcasterís return to pay, a place it hasnít really been since the closure of ITV Digital, the ill-fated precursor to Freeview. The standard definition channels, at least ITV3 and ITV4, were launched after the closure of ITV Digital and grew by 12% in the first six months of 2010.

CEO Adam Crozier and his team have turned to Sky for the distribution deal. That will be the same Sky from where ITV1 HD was previously withheld in order to build up Freesat, the free-to-air platform that received little mention in the results this week, despite being in over one million homes.

On the subject of Freesat, still no announcement on the ITV Player joining the BBC iPlayer on the free-to-air satellite platform, as was promised for the first six months of 2010. Crozier acknowledges that ITVís catch-up TV service is simply not pushing its weight online. ITV Player is equivalent in size to the much smaller 4oD from Channel 4. Its video views were even down on last year, the lack of Susan Boyle bumping up numbers, even if YouTube took most of the traffic in the first place.

The issue of commercial channels, as opposed to pay-TV or public broadcasters, not being able to fund the move into HD has been previously identified by Astra, which has seen the majority of private channels broadcasting in the format encrypt their signals.

The tie-up with Sky is just one step in ITVís new pay-TV strategy. The three-year contact comes with the option to renew for a further two. In return ITV gains a carriage fee for the HD versions of its channels while those in SD will remain free-to-air.

Micropayments are also back on the agenda, micropayments being trialled on, which Crozier wants to transform into a destination site. He admits the user experience is not as good as other sites and with Canvas on the horizon he wants the viewer to have the best possible experience.

Monkey, the knitted star of ITV Digitalís advertisements, now advertises PG Tips tea. But ITV has finally realised that it is in the channel and content distribution business as much as spot advertising.

August 5, 2010