The network that trashed itself
3 Sep 2005 5 comments. tbs.pm/3469
No other broadcaster has seen standards slide to the extent where its programmes are frequently unwatchable as has ITV.
Fair enough, standards have slipped at the BBC and Channel 4, and Five has never been noted for its commitment to upmarket programming, but the way ITV’s reputation has collapsed in the last ten years or so is nothing short of disgraceful. And the sad fact is the station’s managers seem not to care so long as the company makes a profit: if the modern ITV could make money out of showing paint dry, I am sure there would be a show devoted to this, probably hosted by Abi Titmuss to add a bit of celebrity to it.
Fair enough, the old ITV was never perfect. Going back to the late seventies I used to cringe at the prospect of the often joke free 8.00 sitcom slot on Monday nights, LWT light entertainment was often dire, the sports portfolio used to include such antediluvian events as barrel jumping and the world clown diving championship as the BBC had all the sports contracts, and there was a tendency to rely on cheap TV movies and imports to fill gaps in the schedule.
However, these were minor gripes, as the BBC could churn out some equally bad programmes, and the seventies ITV was as keen to produce quality programmes as the BBC. After all, many ITV executives had been hired in from the BBC and had years of experience in public service broadcasting that companies like Thames were keen to exploit. Granada, after all, was known as “the BBC of the North”.
Actually ITV, in theory, could have done what it wanted in the seventies and shown any old tat as it had a monopoly on commercial television and advertising revenue, unlike now where its role and ratings have been very much reduced.
However, the constant ratings threat from the BBC, which had totally recovered from the ratings collapse in the early days of ITV, the desire of ITV companies to make quality programmes and the watchful eye of the IBA made sure that ITV didn’t decide to pull This Week in favour of an extra Crossroads episode.
Thames, in particular, had a certain sort of glamour and a desire to make quality and innovative programmes, along with a few undistinguished suburbacoms, I might add. Its programme controllers in the seventies included Jeremy Isaacs, who went on to make Channel 4 such an innovative force in the eighties.
Hughie Green’s Opportunity Knocks was undoubtedly a ratings big hitter, a talent show that attracted 18 million viewers, and had been on air since 1960. However, Green was a celebrity who thought he was bigger than his show and had decided to wander into politics on his programme.
One particularly embarrassing show in December 1976 saw Green sing a rant about the state of the country called Stand Up and Be Counted, with the words coming up in subtitles, “Stand up and be counted, where the managers manage and the workers don’t go on strike.”
Viewers might have thought they had tuned into a Conservative party broadcast by mistake. Executives at Thames were furious, as the show was supposed to be apolitical, and issued a rebuke to Green, but the entertainer kept allowing his political views to slip during the series, leading to complaints. Eventually Thames tired of Green and the show was axed in March 1978, despite attracting high ratings, something Green mentioned in a bitter rant against Thames in his last show.
Despite Opportunity Knocks being one of Thames most popular shows and a risky move, tantamount to ITV dropping Coronation Street nowadays, the station’s innovative streak saw Green replaced by Kenny Everett.
Even with Green’s political outbursts, he appealed to the traditional older ITV audience who liked the conservative type of entertainment Green offered. Kenny Everett, on the other hand, was known for his madcap radio shows and near the bone humour and Thames thought that by hiring him, they would attract a younger audience.
It was the equivalent of replacing Jack Jones at the Talk of the Town with Sid Vicious. Shows that featured the provocative dancers Hot Gossip, sexual innuendo, television trickery (Quantel was frequently used), and a madcap, rapid-fire presentation style were a total break with the conservative world of ITV light entertainment.
According to the Television Heaven website, the Kenny Everett Video Show was a show viewers loved or hated, but never had a middle ground opinion about. While it never attracted the huge ratings of Opportunity Knocks, although over 10 million viewers tuned in, Everett’s show gained critical acclaim and gave Thames a younger image in the way Hughie Green never could achieve. Although a minor issue in the history of ITV, it showed that the station could take risks.
Unlike now, where programmes seem to go on forever – light entertainment shows like You’ve Been Framed, with the bizarre prefix of “New”, were first new in 1991 – and popular formats are flogged to death, shows were generally replaced every few years even if they were ratings successes as it was felt the formats could get stale.
This probably explains why series like The Sweeney never got tired or went downhill, the show stopping while it was still ahead. Had The Sweeney been launched in 1992, I could imagine it would still be lumbering along today with tired out plots, six changes of leading actors and a dose of political correctness that would have been lacking in 1976.
After all, in the brave new world of ITV1, programmes are kept well past their sell by date because they still get into the station’s top ten ratings and innovation is a dangerous word. When pressed on “Fifty Years of ITV” about why ITV no longer makes sitcoms, producer Nigel Lythgoe declared bluntly, “we just don’t have the time.” Seemingly in the modern world of ITV anything that isn’t an instant ratings success or might take time to develop will not be commissioned.
The real decline in ITV came with the 1990 Broadcasting Act. Although there had been a fall off in standards in the eighties, ITV became a little less committed to minority programming with the creation of Channel 4, and daytime schedules became notorious as dumping grounds for badly made Australian soaps (Afternoon Plus giving way to Sons and Daughters), ITV in 1990 was still relatively good and still devoted time to current affairs and regional programmes.
The 1990 Broadcasting Act, which Douglas Hurd referred to “as one of our least successful pieces of legislation”, was a huge mistake for ITV. ITV franchises were decided on financial bids rather than on quality and the IBA was abolished in favour of the far less powerful ITC, which had far fewer regulatory powers and virtually allowed ITV to do what it wanted, unlike the “policeman” role of the IBA.
The Act saw the highly respected Thames beaten for the London franchise by the unknown Carlton and the middle brow TV-am replaced by GMTV, whose programme controller declared, “the public will get what the public bloody well wants” and created a totally lightweight breakfast service where news came a poor second to celebrity gossip and soap chat.
Even Margaret Thatcher realised the mistake she had made with the Act and was forced to apologise to her main ally in terrestrial television, Bruce Gyngell.
Populism of a kind associated with red top newspapers soon replaced any sort of commitment to quality programmes. Even if ITV’s first network director, Marcus Plantin, wanted to attract a BBC-type audience, he soon fell foul of the diktats of Carlton Television, whose main interests seemed to be in taking over its rivals rather than making anything worthwhile. Current affairs, religious programming, documentaries, intelligent drama and, ultimately, regional identities and programming were ditched in an obsession with ratings.
Perhaps the people who have run ITV since 1993 have been worried that the growth of competition could have damaged the station’s position as the nation’s leading commercial broadcaster and a programme like This Week was never going to top the ratings.
Fair enough, the days of ITV taking half the audience share, and 20 million viewers tuning in to a variety show, were gone; but the wholesale move downmarket was a disaster. Of course, ITV managers will still defend the fact that they take the bulk of the audience in peak time and Coronation Street is the country’s favourite programme.
However, who is watching the station should prove worrying, as ITV’s appeal has drastically narrowed. Yes, I know ITV was always more working class oriented than the BBC, but programmes like Brideshead Revisited and Upstairs Downstairs always attracted huge middle class audiences as well, providing vital advertising revenue – I can recall seeing adverts during Upstairs Downstairs for The Sunday Times and The Observer, something I very much doubt would appear in the breaks for Celebrity Stars In Their Eyes.
ITV relies too much on the 18-35 year old female who reads celebrity magazines and laps up garbage like Celebrity Love Island, underclass viewers during the day, and the dying hardcore of ITV viewers who grew up with the station in the fifties and sixties and who watch little else.
Without wanting to sound snobbish, ITV1 appeals far too much to people who read Hello magazine and The Sun and seems happy to be stuck there. As a 37-year-old man with a degree, who likes broadsheet newspapers but would still class himself as working class, there is little on offer from the station.
Basically men, the middle class, older viewers and anyone with an ounce of taste are excluded from the new world of ITV. Unfortunately, by driving away large parts of the audience, ITV could destroy itself as advertising revenue is bound to suffer.
The fact is that ITV1, the main access point to ITV, is becoming unwatchable and its digital channels are no better. I can recall tuning in to the channel on a Monday night in 1979 and seeing such excellent and diverse programmes as The Kenny Everett Video Show, the old-style Coronation Street, World In Action, Hazell and News at Ten (dodging the poor 8 o’clock sitcom).
These days ITV1 offers Emmerdale, back in 1979 only shown on Tuesdays and Thursdays, a far simpler programme than the trashy soap it is now; two episodes of Coronation Street; the weak reality documentary Airline; and the formulaic and dull police drama Murder Investigation Team. News at Ten is now shown at 10.30.
On some nights, Coronation Street shown three times and Emmerdale extended to an hour. Obviously a case of flogging the station’s two most popular programmes to death, although I often wonder if Coronation Street is as popular as it was because of this over exposure, with ratings falling by 5 million in the past ten years.
The trend towards dumbing down, while most manifest at ITV, seems to have spread to other broadcasters – we can exclude Sky from this, if only because their programmes have always been terrible.
If ITV was showing some daft series like Hollywood Wives in the eighties, and the BBC was showing news or snooker, then the get out clause for the intelligent viewer was Channel 4, who would probably be showing a documentary or a film like Another Country.
Not any more: Channel 4 has drifted far away from its public service remit and is far keener to show an imported series or a reality show. Against the appalling Celebrity Love Island, Channel 4’s alternative was Big Brother, an equally gross reality show for the Heat magazine mindset, making you wonder if the broadcasters are in league with celeb magazine editors and the redtop tabloids.
I can remember picking up a copy of The Sun on a train and seeing a huge pullout devoted to these two awful shows. Meanwhile, the BBC, despite some excellent programming, seems quite happy to cut down its factual programming department and make 4000 staff redundant in the mythical belief it will make better programmes. It’s enough to make you throw out the television.
In the past fifteen years, television executives have become frightened to take risks and have fallen into the trap that the lowest common denominator is a guarantee of audiences, which is the current thinking at ITV in particular.
Whatever the audience that reads The Sun and The Daily Star wants is all that matters. Unfortunately, unless you’re of a mindset that likes soaps and reality non-stop, you don’t count. Never mind that ITV used to produce some of the finest period drama in the world, like Jewel in the Crown, which attracted 16 million viewers. Current affairs programmes like World In Action were once far more relevant than the stodgy Panaroma and well liked. Thames once broadcast Don Giovanni to an audience that was normally hostile to opera.
This is too elitist and complicated for the modern ITV, who thinks that super-serving the chav mindset is all that matters.
However, no one except the South Bank would class the modern ITV as a success. If ratings of 16 per cent for ITV1, not that far ahead of Channel 4, are classed as successful, then there must be something badly wrong at a station which always outperformed the opposition for decades.
Viewers are not fools: there are only so many soaps, reality shows and celebrity programmes you can take. Most recently, ITV1 was forced to pull Celebrity Wrestling, a particularly stupid programme, when it was beaten by four viewers to one by Doctor Who, a welcome return of escapism to the television that the viewers loved. Doctor Who should have made ITV executives wonder if maybe a healthy dose of escapist drama instead of soap, something that ITV once excelled, would win back the viewers.
Yet the current argument in commercial television is not to take risks and thus produce the cheapest, most “populist” programming available. Referring back to the hopeless “50 Years Of ITV ” series, which seemed very dismissive of the station’s past, Nigel Lythgoe seemed to regard reality television as the new situation comedy.
Whatever was funny about Celebrity Love Island was lost on me, and certainly on the viewers, as the programme performed badly in the ratings, unless Callum Best had a sense of humour that the South Bank alone found hilarious.
I would never suggest that ITV1 should become like BBC Two and replace Coronation Street with two intellectuals discussing Marxism, though even this type of programming is rare on Two now. The station needs to be middlebrow, becoming similar to BBC One, offering a wide range of populist programming, balanced out with current affairs, documentary series, regional programmes and religious programmes. Viewers would return to ITV1 if this happened.
Perhaps ITV should take a leaf from Classic FM’s book on how to produce quality commercial broadcasting. Until 1992, Radio 3 had a monopoly on classical music in this country.
Rather like the BBC Television Service in the fifties, Radio 3 tended to be an inward looking network, being excellent for covering the Proms and The Bayreuth Festival, but often playing the sort of classical music that could only be appreciated by an expert. Radio 3 was so inaccessible that the Sunday Times referred to the station in 1988 as “the Militant Tendency of classical music”.
Classic FM decided to use a more accessible approach to classical music, with DJs in a Radio 2 mould introducing popular classics and listener requests while popularising what was often a misunderstood music form through CDs and magazines. Audience figures soon vastly exceeded Radio 3, as listeners warmed to the unstuffy approach and Classic FM attracts over six million listeners a week, a major success, when one considers Radio 3’s audience figures never exceeded three million even when it had a monopoly. Commercial broadcasting does not necessarily mean lowest common denominator broadcasting, as the early Channel 4, Classic FM and the pre-1993 ITV proved.
Perhaps ITV should stop looking to The Sun for inspiration and maybe see how to make itself the world’s greatest commercial broadcaster. I live in hope.