Tuesday, May 16, 2006

For the kids

Hot on the heels of BBC director general Mark Thompson’s outlining of the BBC’s future, ITV chief Simon Shaps used his speech to the RTS on Thursday night to make some remarkable concessions to the network’s critics, and to lay out his plan to appease them (links go to mediaguardian - you need to register to see them).

First off, ‘umble Shaps openly admits to some of ITV’s faults:

I am going to hold my hands up and say we actually agree with some of the criticisms levelled at ITV over the last few years. ITV came late - or largely missed - the revolution in lifestyle programming. We watched in awe and envy as some vastly ambitious specialist factual series hit the screens and gathered large audiences. The BBC has recently hit a rich seam of adventurous, mould-breaking drama. And then there's comedy or rather and then there isn't any comedy - that is outside of comedy drama where ITV has excelled for a number of years.

Now stop reeling from that admission, pick your jaw off the floor and chew on this:

Back in October I sat down with Nick Elliott, who has probably commissioned more successful drama than anybody on this planet, and discussed the next couple of years.

At that time there was in force at ITV a "no classics policy." That struck me as strange. The greatest stories in the English language which are reinvented every ten or twenty years for a new generation of viewers were no longer wanted. It must have been a good lunch - actually it always is with Nick - because by the end of it we had commissioned three Jane Austen films.

But in a way, that's the simple bit. More tricky is to convince a generation of writers who think ITV is not a place for them to work, that they're wrong. We are making good progress here although the fruits of this will not be seen on screen for a little while yet. We have in the last few months, commissioned new work by Sally Wainwright, Kay Mellor, John Fay, Andrew Davies and from Paul Abbott's company Tightrope. In the autumn we have a new Cracker penned by Jimmy McGovern and we have issued an open invitation to writers to bring us their best work, the more original the better, and to producers to start thinking about ITV as a place that wants more than cop shows and period detectives. Nick, together with Laura Mackie and Sally Haynes, are clear that the £300 million pounds a year we spend on original UK drama has to feel more contemporary, less predictable. We should not be afraid of ideas or complexity and we should not be afraid of experimenting with the shape and format, and the subject matter, of television drama...

..We have already taken the decision that we won't be recommissioning Celebrity Fit Club. It'll Be Alright on the Night will disappear with Denis Norden as he retires from television and we've called time on Footballers Wives and Rosemary and Thyme.

So we are undertaking a painful, but utterly necessary, process - a kind of Clause IV moment for ITV - which is to drop programmes which, by the criteria of most of our competitors are still performing incredibly well. Why? Because we know that that volume without value is no longer enough. Value in terms of viewer engagement, value in terms of audience profile, value in terms of word of mouth and the perception of the channel. This is what we want to achieve for ITV1 and I believe we now have the best team in the industry in place to do it.

This sounds excellent. But what’s the cost? After the speech, when talking about ITV’s public service commitments, Shaps made a peculiar comment:

Over time, it isn't clear to me at what time, in what slot, in what volume, children's programmes will be offered by ITV.

This is outrageous. Both ITV1 and BBC1 appear to be planning on drastically scaling back their childrens’ output. Shaps should be especially ashamed. How can ITV1 really be serious about attracting new writers without the historical training ground of childrens’ programmes which, as a whole, are often more daring, more experimental and more varied in genre than prime time output? This is especially remarkable because if not for the hinterland of childrens’ telly, particularly on ITV, Shap’s feted commissions from Wainwright, Mellor and Abbott may never have happened. That’s right, it’s thanks to the early afternoon kiddie slot that such little known writers as Stephen Moffat, Paul Abbott, Russell T Davies, Sally Wainwright, Kay Mellor and Anthony Horowitz actually had their break in this business, and the chance to develop their craft.

Bugger The West Wing. RIP Byker Grove.

Category: Movies and TV

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