Reputation isn’t enough 

4 March 2009 tbs.pm/1027

ITV admits defeat on content-led turnaround

I’ll say this now; Michael Grade had exactly the right idea for a turnaround strategy for ITV plc as it stood, but the ‘r-word’ intervened to prevent that dream from fully happening. Of course that ‘r-word’ was recession, and it’s this coupled with the current internet advertising trend that conspired to kill the dream of a painless content-led turnaround for ITV.

I’m also not of the opinion that Grade is repeating the mistakes made by his immediate predecessor (Charles Allen) as several people have recently suggested; further regional cutbacks have now been forced upon Grade through financial pressures as opposed to a basic business strategy (Grade saw studios as being a potential long term asset).

Having said that, Grade does still have some weaknesses in his armoury, although the inability to properly embrace new media isn’t quite the disadvantage that some have made it out to be on the grounds that it takes real money and effort to make that sort of thing pay off as well as being strictly a long-term strategy at present.

Michael Grade also put a fair deal of faith in his programme commissioning team to deliver the goods, and although they have done a reasonable job under the circumstances (he was right to leave his employees alone to do the job they were paid to do), he perhaps should now reassess this part of the business as a high priority.

So why did ITV ‘fail’ despite some arguably sound decisions from a broadcasting perspective? As well as the recession, Grade has had to contend with rescuing the reputation of an ITV which is already classed by most people as being predominantly for mass market entertainment as opposed to anything serious.

Indeed News At Ten is a belated attempt to correct such a misconception, although it’s easy in retrospect to mock such an attempt as being “too little, too late”. But at least he tried.

Indeed if Grade had time on his side (as well as more money), the steps that he has taken to rescue ITV’s credibility would stand a reasonable chance of paying off, although the pieces that are needed to properly complete the ITV puzzle are still eluding them, namely more reasons for people to watch and trust ITV for quality drama and documentaries.

Grade has also brought a much greater degree of stability to the ITV schedules, even at times when the commercially prudent decision could have been to prematurely pull series from the schedule (as what happened during the Charles Allen era), such as the rapidly declining ratings for the recent six-part drama series Demons.

Charles Allen would have pulled Demons from the schedule after, say, the third episode, but to ITV’s credit all six parts were consistently aired in their scheduled Saturday evening slot despite ratings tumbling from 6 million+ for the first episode to less than 3.5 million viewers at the very end.

Some advertisers may be unimpressed with this tactic but this sort of thing proves beyond any doubt that Michael Grade had set out to make ITV dependable again, along with his insistence on a regular slot five nights a week for News At Ten (something that Charles Allen would likely have never contemplated).

By contrast, drama series that few people remember (such as Making Waves) were abruptly shelved during the Charles Allen era if they underperformed ratings-wise, and ITV has a shelf full of these partly-shown drama series (which originally cost many millions to produce) that may never see the light of day again.

Of course ITV cannot afford to waste money on that sort of scale during a recession, which does tend to draw attention to any failure(s) as a consequence. However it seems that Grade’s commissioning team (which he has placed a lot of trust in) still isn’t quite delivering the goods as expected.

Demons is itself representative of the mistakes that are still being made by ITV’s programme commissioning team, hence my concerns about fundamental errors that need addressing as a matter of urgency if ITV is to ultimately recover its reputation for making drama series.

The problem? There was no one reason that really stood out on paper but it was all down to the execution (or lack of it). Demons was produced by the independent production company Shine, which had already produced a successful fantasy drama series (Merlin) as well as the less fondly-remembered Hex for Sky One.

In the case of Merlin, the series was initially overseen by various BBC staff who helped to polish it and bring the story to life, but ITV’s Demons by contrast was poorly-produced as well as having examples of so-called “stunt casting” such as Life on Mars’ Philip Glenister, (complete with a very dodgy and much-mocked ‘American accent’).

In short, ITV had commissioned Demons but seemed to not only misunderstand the fantasy genre but also failed to take any obvious form of active role in ensuring that the finished product was of an acceptable standard. It wasn’t, the end result was critically panned and at best it turned out to have been a dreadful disappointment.

Therefore it wasn’t a surprise that Demons bombed in the ratings as a consequence, which in turn has caused the third series of Primeval to be put back to the summer for fear of damage by association. (Ant and Dec weren’t originally due to appear on Saturday nights for another few weeks.)

Indeed a few people who claim to have inside knowledge of these things have suggested that the failure of Demons has privately shocked the media industry as a whole along with even having caused certain drama commissions that were in various states of preparation to have either been scrapped or heavily revised as a consequence.

But Demons was ultimately so bad that you can’t really blame bad luck or unusual circumstances for its failure; basic competency is the key issue that needs to be addressed as a result of this fiasco.

Indeed this whole issue of supervising independent production companies has heavy echoes of other recent disasters such as the ‘Sachsgate’ Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross fiasco and the ‘Crowngate’ Queen documentary editing faux-pas to boot, and really ought to be viewed in that wider perspective as a consequence.

So the media industry – or at least ITV – still hasn’t learnt its lesson in this respect, therefore it’s very likely that we can only sit back and wait for the next Sachsgate Crowngate word ending in ‘gate’ to happen.

Back in the days of regional ITV companies and tight regulation, ITV’s output was not only more varied but also the bulk of networked drama/documentaries were usually produced by major ITV franchises that stood to lose much more than merely reputation if they got things wrong for whatever reason. (Not that they were infallible, mind you, but it certainly helped.)

Unfortunately, modern ITV still needs tight quality control in order to salvage at least some of its lost reputation, and these cutbacks will do nothing to make Michael Grade’s task any easier both in terms of in-house production capacity and the availability of supervisory staff for ‘babysitting’ independent productions.

And time is now starting to run out for ITV from a financial perspective, which will be especially crucial if Grade gets ousted for whatever short-term reason and/or ITV plc gets a new owner that doesn’t understand the true meaning of reputation.

At least in an ‘old-school’ kind of sense.