Good timing 

28 February 2008 tbs.pm/863

Fincham replaces Shaps in ITV shakeup

Fincham for Shaps: it’s time for a new era at ITV

When Michael Grade took over the helm of ITV, he didn’t immediately sack half of ITV’s creative team because coming from an ‘old school’ ITV background he knew that staff trust was the most important factor and he had to give them a chance to prove their worth under new leadership.

During the following months, ITV continued to perform reasonably well (relatively speaking), but predominantly it was the established programmes that were shoring up viewing figures as opposed to any new offerings, plus Channel 4 now suffering creatively (like ITV not so long ago) obviously helped to improve ITV’s fortunes as well.

Especially in terms of the weekend peaktime schedule, the ratings performance of a fair number of the new programmes launched during the last year has been disappointing to say the least, which resulted in the classic ‘fire-fight’ strategy of moving programmes around the schedule in a desperate attempt to kick-start them.

Simon Shaps, the director of television that Grade had inherited from the controversial Charles Allen era, did show considerable imagination in some of his commissions, but that imagination did not usually translate into the solid ratings winners that many ITV shareholders and advertisers were looking for.

One new series in particular – Thank God You’re Here – was a particularly risky idea for Saturday nights because a comedy improvisation show was traditionally the sort of thing you might expect to find on Channel 4 as opposed to ITV1, so it could be argued that ideas could be spoiled by less than perfect scheduling.

Another case in point was the Moving Wallpaper/Echo Beach pairing; a novel idea spoilt by the assumption that the audience for the former would automatically be keen to watch the latter – Moving Wallpaper being a satirical drama about the production of a cheap ‘soap opera’ (Echo Beach).

So given this background of misfiring new series combined with the inevitable commercial pressures, Simon Shaps’ period of grace has now expired with a preemptive move required to quieten shareholders before next week’s fiscal announcement of ITV’s annual results.

ITV’s share price has been predominantly depressed by the BSkyB shareholding that has discouraged casual ITV takeover ‘predators’ such as Virgin Media (the main tactical objective for BSkyB). BSkyB has been told to sell its shares but has appealed against the verdict and this will take months to fully resolve.

These additional months may have bought ITV more time to prove itself as an independent entity before any risk of a hostile takeover, although the share price may still reach a low point that will trigger a takeover regardless of the BSkyB shareholder presence combined with the threat of a weakening economy both in the US and Europe.

For Grade, the appointment of Peter Fincham who had successfully proved his worth as BBC One controller before being ousted as a byproduct of the ‘Crowngate’ scandal, was a logical choice to make, even though some might argue that Fincham may not have properly learnt the lessons of what had previously happened.

Basically speaking, ‘Crowngate’ happened under Fincham’s “watch” because editorial policy was to implicitly trust independent producer RDF’s editorial judgement of a sensitive subject (The Queen), when someone at RDF decided to ‘sex up’ the editing of a promotional trailer shown at the BBC One Autumn season press launch.

The fact that ITV itself isn’t whiter than white when it comes to several pay-TV scandals involving a variety of shows (as proven by the Deloitte report whose findings have yet to be fully evaluated) will be a tough hurdle to overcome, and Peter Fincham’s judgement on similar issues will always have to be cautious given the nature of past events.

Also Grade may be pushing Shaps out of the firing line at ITV if he knows that any future fallout still to come from the Deloitte report could inevitably result in Shaps being directly incriminated in relation to some of the premium rate service profit sharing deals that may have taken place in the past.

One thing seems for certain – after years of bad luck, the gods seem to be on the side of ITV for the moment, at least for the time being.