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ITV should be glad to see the back of Piers Morgan – brand safety beats bland controversy

Mihir Haria-Shah, head of broadcast at media agency Anything is Possible, offers a media buyer’s perspective into the twists and turns of this week’s royal rumble – resulting departure of Piers Morgan from ITV’s flagship morning show.

It has been a week of big numbers and tough decisions at ITV.

It began with the commercial broadcaster securing the rights to broadcast Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s ‘bombshell’ interview with Oprah Winfrey on Monday evening – with estimates suggesting ITV would earn $120,000 for ad spots during the interview. We also heard revenues at the group had fallen 16% to £3.3bn through a challenging 2020.

But things really peaked when on Monday, Piers Morgan claimed that he had trouble ‘believing’ comments made by Markle that she felt suicidal during her time as a member of the royal family. The comments turned the mood on the GMB set sour, resulting in Morgan deserting his post in a huff the following day. It also sparked an astonishing 41,000 complaints to Ofcom – the second-highest number of complaints in Ofcom’s history.

By Tuesday evening, the controversial host was no longer part of GMB.

Does controversy pay?

There is no doubt that Piers Morgan was the driving force behind Good Morning Britain’s ascent as a show and its rise as a commercial vehicle for ITV. Prior to Morgan’s addition in 2015, the show achieved much lower ratings than its rival BBC Breakfast, averaging around 560,000 viewers per episode.

Somewhat ironically, his final episode achieved exactly that. Piers Morgan’s terminal outing on GMB was watched by 1.29 million viewers in the UK – the first time that GMB beat BBC Breakfast in ratings since its inception, according to BARB figures.

Piers Morgan is high risk, high reward. His moral compass magnetically points him towards opinions which will attract viewers and capture attention, but it offers little other guidance. These are difficult times for businesses like ITV which rely on traditional advertising revenue. So can they afford to lose Piers Morgan, his controversy and the eyeballs it attracts?

The answer is clear. Yes they can.

Brand safety beats bland controversy

ITV is a progressive business. And this forward-looking perspective is accelerating under the stewardship of Carolyn McCall.

In July last year, the broadcaster unveiled its Diversity Acceleration Plan, outlining ambitions to accelerate change in diversity and inclusion across ITV by creating more opportunities for those from Black, Asian, minority ethnic and other underrepresented groups.

This followed ‘Britain Get Talking’ – a mental wellness campaign with a five year commitment from ITV to promote mental wellness with the goal of getting 10 million people to take action to improve their mental or physical health by 2023.

So it was no surprise to see Carolyn McCall quickly distance the broadcaster from Morgan’s claims about Meghan’s mental health.

Piers’ controversy was valuable to ITV – to a point. But once his opinions begin to undermine and erode the work ITV is doing as a broadcaster, and as a brand, his value quickly dissipates. Brands do not want to be seen as ‘funding hate’, as the YouTube and Facebook brand safety scandals will attest.

Equally, those who can’t ‘walk the talk’ quickly attract derision from consumers. ITV would point to Nike as an example. Nike has profited from the talents of black athletes for decades, and was quick to join in with ’#BlackOutTuesday’ following the murder of George Floyd. But the sincerity of these messages were questioned by consumers following the revelation they had no black representation at a corporate level. How long could ITV champion mental health awareness as a brand whilst providing Piers Morgan a platform?

Agencies are playing a role in applying this pressure too. At Anything Is Possible we are members of the Conscious Advertising Network, a collection of agencies who want to create a better advertising ecosystem by highlighting the conscious choices advertisers and agencies can make to place brands in healthier environments. This means that we have been advising our clients to avoid controversial shows such as GMB in their media mix.

What happens next?

Piers Morgan’s departure from GMB comes after a year in which the TV personality accrued some unlikely respect and praise for his direct criticism of the UK government’s handling of the pandemic. Many people found themselves rubbing their eyes in disbelief having nodded along to Morgan unleashing a righteous tirade, grilling a hapless minister in the early hours of the morning.

But this favour was ultimately worth very little. And when you contrast his wider viewpoints with those of his employer, it was clear that ITV couldn’t afford to be associated with him for long.

Despite this, it is almost certainly not the last we will see from Morgan. With 7.7 million followers on Twitter, he still has the potential to attract significant audiences. He will likely move to a home in which he is more ideologically aligned with his employer – perhaps on Andrew Neil’s soon-to-launch station GB News.

For brands willing to embrace the risk and divisiveness of his personality, this could present an interesting option.

But for ITV, he portrayed a toxic image which was at-odds with the direction of the business and the principles of the leadership. So while Morgan’s moral compass is moved by ratings, it was reassuring to see that ITV’s was not. Ending this relationship stands to create a more positive environment for co-hosts, viewers and brands alike.

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