ITV’s Last Gasp

Savaged by a regime that sacrificed quality for cash, the network needs to return to striking and original programmes. Can Michael Grade pull it off, or is ITV’s decline terminal?

The past often acquires a golden glow. On closer inspection, the golden glow usually turns to rust: the old reality turns out to have been just as banal and boring as the present one. But occasionally, things in the past actually were better than they are in the present. One example is ITV, the biggest and oldest commercial television station in Britain.

Thirty years ago, ITV used to boast that it was superior to every other commercial television network in the world. Amazingly, that boast was true. Commercial television everywhere else had failed to solve the problem identified by Fred Friendly, the CBS executive portrayed by George Clooney in the movie Good Night, and Good Luck. Friendly left CBS in disgust in 1966, after the network decided to broadcast an episode of The Lucy Show instead of a programme questioning the merits of America’s involvement in Vietnam. Not longer afterwards, he noted that “because television can make so much money doing its worst, it often cannot afford to do its best”.

In Britain, however, ITV appeared to have found a way out of commercial television’s cul-de-sac of cheap, unchallenging but enormously profitable junk programming. While ITV certainly created its fair share of forgettable dross, it also produced an astonishing range of high quality programmes. There were at least two current affairs documentaries in prime time every week: World in Action and This Week both often addressed pertinent political and social questions, and occasionally uncovered serious incompetence, wrongdoing or lying by members of the Government or other powerful institutions. News at Ten was recognised as a serious competitor to the BBC’s news, both in the depth and the breadth of its coverage. The drama on ITV was of a quality which has been rarely, if ever, surpassed by anything on television since: Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel in the Crown were the two most celebrated examples, but there were many others.

Compare that with what ITV offers today. It bears an uncomfortably close resemblance to the darkest days of American commercial television: a depressing diet of formulaic gameshows, cop-shows and soap operas. Today on ITV, there are no serious current affairs documentaries in peak-time – in fact, there are arguably no current affairs programmes at all on the network, ever. Tonight with Trevor McDonald has in fact been almost exclusively a compilation of celebrity interviews and consumer items. No politician has anything to fear from that quarter – any more than any minister need tremble at the thought of The Jeremy Kyle Show, a kind of downmarket version of The Jerry Springer Show (yes, that is possible: just take a look at it). Granada, the company that used to produce World in Action, now makes The Jeremy Kyle Show, a daytime chat show.

It is the same story with ITV’s news coverage. News at Ten having been moved from 10pm to 10:30pm, then back again to 10pm, is a pale shadow of what it once was, and is very inferior to the BBC news bulletins, not least because it appears to have cut out almost all foreign coverage, possibly because it fired most of its foreign correspondents. And if you try to think of a memorable drama ITV has produced in recent years, you will have to cogitate for a very long time -– and you may still end up drawing a blank.

On the day I write this piece, a Wednesday in July, ITV’s evening schedule consists of three soap operas (Emmerdale, Coronation Street and The Bill), one celebrity cooking show (Marco Great British Feast), News at Ten, followed by a drama series imported from the US (Six Degrees), then, at 11.40pm, a programme described as “a documentary which uncovers the hidden world of high-class prostitutes” (it’s a repeat).

Perhaps it is unfair to single out one evening’s schedule: every channel has the odd off-night, and even ITV in its golden days had times when it showed nothing whatever of interest. But whereas the old ITV would also broadcast programmes of extremely high quality, today’s ITV never seems to do so. A flick through the week’s, or the month’s, or even the year’s rack of programmes being offered by ITV does not suggest that this sample provides a misleading view of the kind of material the network now offers. There are no redeeming nuggets: ITV has not shown anything of distinction or even much merit which it has produced itself for years.

When Granada TV, the company which merged with Carlton to form ITV Productions, does make something good, it is not shown on ITV. Jimmy McGovern’s drama series The Street, for example, which has won Emmy, Bafta and many other awards, was rejected by ITV executives as “unsuitable” for ITV. It was shown on BBC1. So was The Royle Family, which was also made by Granada but not shown on ITV – because ITV’s executives thought it would not find a big enough audience. (It is far more popular than most of the comedies that ITV does show.)

The culprits for ITV’s precipitous decline are many and various. The advertisers are everyone’s favourite villains. But they insist ITV’s slide downmarket is not their fault: they did not want ITV to produce predictable and boring programmes which affluent people do not watch, and they are emphatic that it was not they who took ITV downmarket. They say they far preferred the ITV which produced original, creative and dynamic shows, because they attracted more of the consumers that advertisers will pay large sums to reach.

A comparison with the US suggests that, certainly where drama is concerned, pressure from advertisers cannot, on its own, account for a decline in quality. US commercial TV stations have produced in recent years several memorable drama series, which have been shown in the UK to considerable acclaim from both advertisers and audience, including The West Wing, 24, House and Mad Men. ITV has had Footballers’ Wives and Rock Rivals. It is not the advertisers that have prevented ITV from making anything comparable to The West Wing.

Another oft-cited culprit for ITV’s decline is the development of technology, which has dramatically changed the “broadcasting environment”. In the 1970s and 1980s, ITV was in effect the only commercial TV channel in the UK. Today, there are more than 200 commercial TV stations, and although you may not have heard of, still less ever watched, 190 of them, the fact is that quite a few people do. The fragmentation of the audience for television means that there are fewer eyeballs left for ITV. The channel’s audience has inevitably declined as a consequence – and lower audiences for programmes mean lower revenues from advertisers.

Yet technological developments cannot explain ITV’s slump in quality either, because that started well before the relevant technological changes happened. The multi-channel universe in the UK is a recent phenomenon, whereas ITV’s decline was evident a decade ago. Again, evidence from America suggests that hundreds of channels do not make it impossible for any one of them to create high-quality drama. HBO, for example, has operated from its inception in competition with hundreds of other channels. But it has generated plenty of high-quality drama, from Sex and the City to The Sopranos, from Six Feet Under and The Wire to The Gathering Storm and John Adams.

The real catalyst for the decline of ITV was the Conservatives’ 1990 Broadcasting Act, which introduced auctions for each of the 15 regional franchises that made up the ITV network. The original plan was that money alone would be the deciding factor – whoever bid most would win – but at the last moment, a clause was inserted which allowed that, in “exceptional circumstances”, a broadcasting franchise could be awarded to a company that did not offer the highest price for it. The “exceptional circumstances” were that the company offering the lower bid would offer programmes of a much higher quality. Granada won its franchise on that basis, with a bid several million pounds lower than the biggest offer.

Ray Fitzwalter, who used to edit World In Action and who ran Granada’s current affairs department, documents what happened next in his book, The Dream that Died: the Rise and Fall of ITV. Panicked by the need to recoup the millions they had spent buying the franchise, Granada replaced the creative programme-makers who had run the company with cost-cutting businessmen. Gerry Robinson, whose experience was in running the catering group Compass, was hired as chief executive and given plenary powers. The news of that appointment led to a fax from John Cleese saying: “Why don’t you fuck off out of it you upstart caterer?” Robinson calmly replied: “Reading between the lines of your message, I detect that I am a greater fan of yours than you are of mine.”

With forensic thoroughness and a certain dry relish, Fitzwalter itemises the destruction wrought by Robinson’s single-minded pursuit of “shareholder value”. (Fitzwalter himself was one of its first victims.) Robinson and his sidekick Charles Allen laid waste to Granada’s commitment and ability to produce quality programmes. They then did the same to the whole ITV network, when Granada merged with Carlton – which, under Michael Green, ceased to produce any programmes at all once it won the franchise from Thames TV to become the “new” ITV.

In the long term, Robinson and Allen’s slash-and-burn policies did not even succeed in increasing shareholder value, let alone maintaining it. ITV shares today are at a pitiful 40p, a third of their value two years ago. Its average audience is less than one third of what it had been a decade ago: neither the BBC nor Channel 4 have experienced that kind of decline. Long before ITV’s share price had collapsed, Robinson and Allen were both gone, each of them several million pounds richer. Fitzwalter points out that in 1990, when the Granada Group had a turnover of £1.3bn, the highest-paid director received £200,000. In 2006, Charles Allen ran Granada Media, which had a £1.3bn turnover – but Allen’s salary, not including pension and share options, was £1m, or four and half times larger.

Companies can survive change and takeovers. What they cannot survive is the destruction of the ethos which has sustained them. What happened at Granada, and then across the rest of ITV, is that the ethos of making quality programmes was lost. Robinson and Allen did not believe in it: they set out to destroy it, and they succeeded. They thought the old ethos was wasteful and pointless, a way in which pretentious and boring journalists and producers could justify spending other people’s money. It is not even clear that Robinson and Allen, in their most brutally destructive phase, were willing to recognise that there is a difference between The Jewel in the Crown and, say, Footballers’ Wives, or between World in Action at its best and The Jerry Springer Show at its worst. The distinction between quality and dross playedno part whatever in their calculations or their business strategy.

Does it matter? To those who think there is no difference at all between quality and dross as far as television programmes go – to those who think they are all dross – it does not matter. That, however, is a symptom of a chronic loss of confidence in basic values which leads to the destruction of standards in any area of culture, be it education, art or television. There clearly is a difference in quality between what ITV is now doing, and what it was doing 20 years ago. A refusal to recognise the falling-off in quality requires a dogmatic attachment to the relativist view that all judgments of aesthetic value are phoney, and the only measure of worth is money. That dogma, however, is worse than a crime: it is a mistake. As the decline in the stock of ITV shows, if money is literally all you care about, you make yourself incapable of making anything striking and original which people will flock to watch.

There is also another issue. A democracy requires a sceptical, probing media. ITV does not provide probing journalism of any kind. It cannot be beneficial to our political culture that serious coverage of political issues that reaches the bulk of the population is left to the BBC, financed in effect by a tax. But that is the situation that the decline of ITV has produced.

Can ITV return to producing and broadcasting high-quality programmes? It is not impossible. Serious journalism is undergoing a significant revival at Channel 4, where for several years it appeared to be being eliminated in favour of reality TV, freak-shows and soft porn. Channel 4’s recent history shows it is possible to pull a channel back from the downward slide towards uninterrupted dross – but it is going to be enormously difficult at ITV. It is under some serious financial constraints, including a sharp fall in advertising and a deal (negotiated by Charles Allen) which has the consequence that if any ITV show does not provide the number of viewers expected, then advertisers can claim a proportion of their money back.

But the lack of confidence and commitment to quality are even more important than the shortage of money. Michael Grade, the chief executive of ITV appointed in 2006, can certainly distinguish between quality and dross, and wants ITV to provide quality. But because the creative ethos was so thoroughly destroyed during the Robinson/Allen era, there’s no one left at ITV to generate it. Michael Grade’s greatest challenge is to create an ethos within ITV that nurtures creativity, originality and quality. Achieving that took the old Granada about 20 years. The new ITV has about 12 months to do the same, before the shareholders consider breaking it up. On present performance, no one would miss it.

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