Palooza review: ITV puts commercial ‘pole position’ in tough market

Palooza review: ITV puts commercial ‘pole position’ in tough market

ITV’s annual upfronts wanted to communicate the broadcaster ‘gets it’ by revamping its show at a new location. But a lot of the content was familiar, too, including jokes about Nigel Farage.

On any other night, children dressed up as Elsa and Olaf would have been watching a performance of Disney’s Frozen at London’s Theatre Royal on a chilly November evening.

Instead, London’s oldest theatre was subjected to the more rough’n’tumble crowd that flocks to ITV’s annual Palooza event — a mishmash of household names, comedians, reality show contestants, and programme makers.

Not to mention the real stars of the show: advertisers.

And there were plenty of signs that, for all the jokes, flashing lights, and the razzle dazzle, the UK’s biggest commercial broadcaster was playing a serious game.

For a start: the choice of hosts Tom Allen and Onatejiro “AJ” Odudu were telling for their respective commercial and editorial back stories. The former is the host of Cooking with the Stars, a co-creation with M&S, and quipped at various points about the retailer paying for his house.

Meanwhile, Odudu was the host of ITV’s recently revamped Big Brother, ITV’s big rights acquisition this year, after having been apparently been sacked by Channel 4 a decade ago from the same programme’s spin-off show.

Revamps and reruns are important too, as would become clear later.

‘Kelly and Dags’ move up the batting order

The dynamic duo of Kelly Williams and Simon Daglish was moved further up the schedule, following CEO Carolyn McCall’s brief welcome.

McCall herself has spoken this year of UK TV advertising being in its “worst recession” since the 2008 Financial Crisis. And, in a tough market, Williams seemed determined to show ITV “gets it”.

“This year advertising takes pole position in our story; its rightful place,” he said. “Because without your investments, there would be no ITV. So for that, we thank you.”

Indeed, much of ‘Kelly and Dags’ speech was being watched closely by McCall. The Media Leader noticed her standing on the sidelines listening intently, seeming to hang on their every word for a chunk of time as she peered at them from around a pillar.

McCall, who has led ITV for over five years now, launched her ‘big thing’ last year in the form of ITVX. Its success is not just a reflection of developing better measurement tools for advertisers demanding better sales attribution for their media spend, but of moving away from linear as the first destination for commissioning.

It has always made sense as a ‘transformation’ plan but media has become even more of a results business in the digital age.

Not to worry: there were a lot of results on show.

Slides packed with information. Big numbers. Bigger words. Blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stats.

As one media agency planner remarked afterwards, “it was surprising how much info they were trying to get across at this sort of event. It got me thinking, ‘where’s the role for the agency if ITV are selling to advertisers as planning experts’?”

As for what Williams and Daglish announced, much of it was covered in our story on Tuesday evening: a new BE Studio (a studio for branded entertainment) that will lead on co-created programming with advertisers, and two new measurement products.

Anyone who attended last week’s webinar on ITVX would have found the Palooza announcements easier to follow, too.

Farage is a ‘wanker’ and other Kevin Lygo musings

But, eventually, we did get to the sizzle as ITV showed off its upcoming slate for 2024.

ITV’s director of television Kevin Lygo unveiled promos for food/travel show Big Zuu’s 12 Dishes in 12 Hours; a dramatisation of the postmasters injustice scandal Mr Bates vs The Post Office; a Jed Mercurio dramatisation of Dr Rachel Clarke’s telling of hospital life during the height of Covid (Breathtaking); drama Until I Kill You starring Anna Maxwell Martin (Motherland), and heist drama Joan.

Not before Lygo’s familiar stand-up routine. I say “familiar” because even the visual humour was a rehash of a previous Palooza.

Lygo referred to this Palooza featuring, for the first time, sign-language people on the stage.

“I know how to sign Nigel Farage,” he declared, before circling his fingers into the ‘wanker’ signal (sorry, kids, there’s no other way to describe it).

Just as he did in 2021 about Piers Morgan, who had recently stormed off the set of Good Morning Britain because a weatherman dared to challenge Morgan over his attitude towards Meghan Markle.

Morgan was not happy and Farage likely won’t be either. But Lygo would not be deterred.

“The only problem with letting Farage out of the jungle is it means he comes home,” Lygo said. “But it’s okay because it’s part of his contract to come back home in a dinghy.”

The Media Leader columnist Nick Manning, who was sitting closer to ‘the action’, was in a better position to hear a smattering of boos and groans that followed.

But Lygo is an attention seeker and, in this respect, he did very well indeed. While the market has been tough for ITV, it has been much worse for rival Channel 4, he suggested, referring to them as “buskers”.

He drew attention to Matt Hancock’s appearance on I’m a Celeb… being Ofcom’s second-most complained about TV event of 2022 (“surely we can do better than that”, he quipped, referring to Farage).

I did wonder how tasteful it was for what is essentially ITV’s editor-in-chief to publicly demean the very talent Lygo would have sanctioned. Nigel Farage did not walk in off the street; he is being paid a widely reported (and apparently not denied) £1.5m.

Back to the future

As for the 2024 content, shows like Joan were all “very ITV”, as Lygo remarked, except the programmes just weren’t as ‘up front’ in the show as you’d expect from a traditional upfronts. Again, one suspects that was deliberate.

There was one interesting addition to the reel, however, for a different reason. ITV Palooza showed a clip for Extraordinary, about an ordinary girl living in a world where everyone else has superpowers.

“Er, I’ve seen this on Disney Plus… I’m confused,” remarked a sharp-witted colleague from Broadcast in the audience.

Indeed, as referenced in last week’s ITVX presentations, big box-sets (usually American) are a big part of its strategy. ITV is buying shows like Extraordinary on a secondary market to bolster its content slate for ITVX. With the exception of Netflix, the other subscription platforms seem very happy for ITV to run these shows on ‘free-to-stream’ with ads.

So while Palooza was very impressive, thoughtful, and laden with talent, so much of it seemed like “I’ve heard this somewhere before”.

Podcast: What happened at ITV Palooza and ‘the moment’ for media planners

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