Three Years Later: An Afterword
By Graham Kibble-White, Jack Kibble-White, Barney Green, Ian Jones and Steve Williams
First published August 2004
And cut to three years later. Brookside’s been axed, The Simpsons are moving to Channel 4, Graham Norton’s on his way to White City, Premiership football highlights are returning to the Beeb and David Dickinson’s happened to us all …
Three years in television is probably just enough for a trend to emerge, be feted in Monday’s Guardian and then bottom out to become just another staple part of our TV dinner. But what’s changed since I had a go at calling the shots on BBC1 back in 2001? Well, unlike the rest of our channels, the real person sitting in that big chair hasn’t, with Lorraine Heggessey recently musing that she’s up for breaking the record for the longest serving BBC1 Controller. And perhaps it’s because of this inertia at the top that the channel itself doesn’t feel all that different to the one I rarely watched back in 2001.
But then, has there been any real impetus for change? With BBC1 successfully challenging ITV’s audience share in recent years, surely all it needs to do is keep on keeping on? Perhaps it could be argued that my efforts to reinvent the channel so that it “would speak to the broadest possible audience in terms of age” was actually something of a smokescreen. Instead, I was trying to reclaim a BBC1 that spoke more to me. In reality, the channel probably is covering most of the bases most of the time, and doing quite well in hooking in that broad audience. It’s just that somewhere along the way I lost touch with the favourite button from my youth, and wanted to get it back.
Maybe. Maybe not.
Looking back at the seven days I laid out, I do think there was some effort to speak to all of us in my line-up of programming, but I have to temper that with the admission that when I scheduled programmes that didn’t specifically interest me, I did so with far less thought and commitment. Yep, self-indulgence is definitely the amateur controller’s closest companion.
So where did I get it right … and where did I get it wrong? Well, first up I have to confess that three years later, I’m not exactly sure where these “must-see” moments I wrote about were supposed to be in my line-up. Bar the return of Doctor Who and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet there was little else to set the collective tongue wagging. I mean, Johnny Vaughan challenging a celeb to communicate “Glengarry Glen Ross” in a one-minute line drawing would hardly provoke a community to spring up around the water cooler. However, I did exhibit some prescience in my thinking, particularly when I set off in pursuit of Graham Norton, trying to woo him onto BBC1 (even though, in our imaginary world, ITV managed to snare the comic instead).
On Saturdays I scored some notable hits, and embarrassing misses too. The concept of Breakfast on Saturday is one that has since become a reality on the channel; despite my rivals’ assertion that Jeremy Bowen wouldn’t be happy about coming in on the weekend. OK, so Bowen is long gone, but Breakfast rising star Mishal Husain can now be regularly found batting about the news and weather from 6am onwards. That said, despite my assertion that a Saturday service would need to “play it with a lighter touch”, the real McCoy is actually an even more hardcore version of its weekday self, with sofas eschewed for a News 24 desk.
I was also first in putting Johnny Vaughan on a Saturday night, albeit in a rather less exposed 5.30pm slot helming Win, Lose or Draw. With the poor performance of Johnny & Denise – Passport to Paradise (being beaten by a BBC2 repeat of Miss Marple), who’s to say that was such a bad idea? Certainly, ITV reckoned the quick-draw game show was worthy of a revival this year … although the least said about that the better. So, drawing a veil over that partial victory, we come to Doctor Who. This was the part of my Saturday night that I was most anxious about, but recent events have since indicated it was potentially one of my best decisions. While I had to stave off self-doubt in bringing back the Time Lord to our TV screens, it turns out his return in the real world has sent the press absolutely bonkers, affording the show a level of publicity arguably unprecedented in BBC history. With all indications pointing to a monster hit, probably the only thing I got wrong in my treatment of the show was to debut it in the summer. That, and casting Stephen Fry, of course.
So, well done me. However, while I could claim a couple of hits on Saturday night, there were far more misses. Although I’m still standing by the rationale of slinging out a couple of Republic Serial adventures first up on a Saturday morning, I completely misjudged what was required in terms of a flagship show. While I championed Johnny Ball (who, lest we forget, was subsequently dragged back onto the telly by The Terry and Gaby Show) talking about the actual physics behind computer games, Dick and Dom were prepping up a load of creamy muck-muck to fling all over a low-concept studio set. My musings that the Beeb shouldn’t try and take on ITV in terms of anarchic fun were shown to be woefully off base – but to be honest, I’m all the happier for it. So it’s out with the kids’ consumer reports on Saturday morning, and in with fish-faced kipper-slapper. Hooray!
And as for I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue on Saturday nights, what was I thinking?
As for Sundays, I was bang on again in my predication of a killer slot for Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. 9pm I had it, and 9pm it ultimately was when the show hit our screens in April 2002. But, sometimes these things are just obvious. Rather less obvious was to be the Beeb’s handling of Panorama. Although I’d tutted when the channel had effectively side-lined the programme by shoving it out on a Sunday night, when I had the opportunity to readdress this I eventually decided “with my BBC1 geared towards family entertainment, it felt only right that Panorama should be placed into its own niche somewhere off the main thoroughfare of programming.” Boo for me, and this disgraceful admission has recently been shown in an even poorer light with reports the Corporation are apparently readying to return the programme to primetime. But then again, none of us could have predicted Hutton.
Looking at the weekdays, I made a few other odd decisions. The Savages was back, for no properly defined reason other than the fact that my counterpart at ITV wanted the series. In reality, of course, the sitcom never did return and considering the fact Marcus Brigstocke starred, that was all to the good. Similarly, my choice of hosts for the “agenda-setting” Day Ahead was, er, interesting. A one point earlier this year Nicky Campbell seemed to be all over the Beeb, but since his key contribution – via Come and Have a Go If You Think You’re Smart Enough – to a week in April when the channel suffered its worst ever audience share, he’s suddenly not so in vogue. Nevertheless, I’m sure he’d have done a fine job for me. Less so Sarah Kennedy and Paul Coia and their magazine show PS. Again: what was I thinking?
Nevertheless, putting that bizarre commission to one side, I did score a palpable hit with Grange Hill as I ruthlessly weeded out the older characters in the show, and returned the point-of-view very much to the kids. That Mersey Television followed this format when they acquired the series in 2002 was all the proof I needed that this was the right way to tackle the programme. The resultant series that went out in 2003 was one of the best for years.
Early evenings were just as hit and miss. Yanking Watchdog out of Friday nights was definitely the right move. I put it on Mondays, Ms Heggessey placed in on Tuesdays. That’ll do me. I also brought back game shows to the post-evening news slot, although Brucie’s Didn’t They Do Well? probably pisses all over a new Phillip Schofield venture and Simon O’Brien helming – ahem – Masterteam. Rather more on the nose was my idea to relaunch Superstars, something that happened for real last year, but my Top of the Pops spin-off, Inside TOTP, turned out to be more like the current-day version of the show itself, with its gormless reliance on pop news and interactivity. Hmmm.
Moving up towards the news (and we’ll get to that in a minute) it was here that I made my most controversial decision. Pure good fortune finds me reflecting upon my decision to put one episode of EastEnders to the sword mere weeks after the programme recorded its lowest-ever viewing figures. Whereas my arguments about the production being fatigued back in 2001 convinced few, I fancy I’d get a better hearing now as for the first time since 1985, there’s talk of it becoming the nation’s “third soap” behind Emmerdale. That said, the odds are by this time next year the show will be back on top again – so I’m gloating while I can.
And so to the news, and my other big “innovation”. I have to say, despite all evidence pointing to the contrary, I still maintain the evening news should be moved back to 9pm, but I think this point is never going to be proven. Following the weather I’d then placed Jonathan Ross twice weekly in his new chat show. With his real life Saturday night effort proving itself to be a continuing let-down, we should perhaps be happy the real channel controllers stuck to their guns and kept the host’s agonising repartee to just one night a week.
Looking back over the rest of my late night schedules, let’s face it, there’s nothing there that really jumped off the screen and I’d be foolhardy to presume I’d topped the real BBC in my efforts. Then again, they have nothing to look particularly smug about either, so let’s call it a draw (with an extra credit for me for prefiguring the return of Jon McClue/Jed Mercurio to drama).
So there it was, I took on the BBC and neither of us really came out of it better off. Would you rather watch my BBC1, or Lorraine Heggassey’s? There’s not much in it to be honest. Looking back at my efforts now, it all seems like journeyman stuff with the odd flash of inspiration (Superstars) and the occasional smack of desperation (Take Me Home, every night?!) providing the only real elements of light and shade.
But, you know, Doctors at midnight. That could really be a grower.
Whether BBC2 has delivered “enriching entertainment” in the three years since I coined that rather cheesy mantra for the second channel probably remains debatable. In fact if you are looking for any examples of prescience in my imaginary BBC2 schedules, then this suspect mission statement which pre-empted the popularity of David Brent (The Office started on 9 July 2001) is just about the best candidate.
However in attempting to align BBC2 around a common cause I would appear to have completely misread (at least) the short-term future of the channel. Under the control of Jane Root, BBC2 seems to have been all about coming up with the odd one-off hit series or special to be proud of, and allowing the rest of the schedule to trundle long pretty much as before. Series such as What Not to Wear have provided the channel with a few “faces”, but discounting Susannah, Trinny (who now have now shipped over to BBC1), the aforementioned Ricky Gervais and perhaps Rick Stein it is difficult to think of anybody that you would describe as a contemporary BBC2 “face” right now. Even Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen and Kathy Burke (my two wildcard BBC2 celebs from three years ago) have to some extent flown the coop, leaving the channel in the hands of a moonlighting John Humphrys and the – let’s face it – lamentable Dead Ringers team (whose leader – Jon Culshaw – seems to be fast becoming a servant of ITV1).
But let’s not be too negative here. Of those occasional hits, BBC2 has delivered some great programmes. 2002’s The Hunt for Britain’s Paedophiles was a truly courageous and revealing piece of television that remains almost impossible to re-watch. On a lighter note, the Restoration series (which according to press reports incoming Controller Roly Keating has elected not to renew) was as good an example of any of inclusive, rewarding entertainment television. 24 was a piece of canny purchasing on the part of BBC2, however the series has long since been and gone and whether or not it still retains a pull when series three finally ends up on terrestrial will determine whether or not BBC2 got out while the going was good.
Perhaps the arrival of BBC4 has put the squeeze on BBC2, just like I predicted in my original article. Certainly, after a shaky start it – and to a lesser extent – BBC3 have begun to perform well. Indeed, BBC2 has welcomed with open arms Little Britain and Time Shift from its digital siblings, and Bodies (to be broadcast in the autumn) will surely be one of the channel’s best dramas of the year.
So comparing my schedules to what we actually got, the first surprise is that I was outdone in the self-indulgent, self-referential stakes when BBC2 commissioned Look Around You.
My BBC2 weekend schedule tried to offer up a distinctive themed feel to the channel that set apart its weekend output from the other five days’ schedules. This concept didn’t seem to catch on in the real world. However I am going to claim an indirect hit (on two counts) with my innovative Saturday sports magazine You Are Here (“[the] John Inverdale and Tommy Boyd hosted live programme would provide a guide to the main events taking place that weekend”). Had it ever been commissioned then it would have found itself directly scheduled against BBC1’s In The Know (“John Inverdale and Louise Minchin present a live magazine show featuring the summer’s top sporting events”). In addition, I would like to stake a (tenuous) claim that Saturday Kitchen is actually just You Are Here but about cookery instead.
I also managed some success in predicting a move away from the I Love … strand towards more conventional documentaries dealing with entertainment figures. However whereas my Saturday schedule gave you Saturday Reputations (“Later programmes will focus on Noel Edmonds, Jeremy Beadle and Bruce Forsyth. Tonight’s episode uncovers the true story of the rise of Richard and Judy”), the real BBC2 brought us Fame, Set and Match – a far more frivolous series, I think. Another tick for me comes in predicting the League of Gentleman’s decision to abandon the sketch show format for self-contained stories. However I will concede that one didn’t have to be Nostradamus to see that coming.
But let’s not just dwell on the hits. Why I ever thought that Robot Wars had the legs for an extended, live weekly edition I do not know given that it cannot sustain an audience even big enough for five. Similarly whilst five have flourished with drama on a Saturday night, it is still something that eludes BBC2, although I stand by the belief that a good home-made drama could play well on Saturday evenings. However perhaps my biggest faux pas was to make The Simpsons an integral part of BBC2’s weekend line-up.
Into the weekdays; and where I had my daytime BBC2 dipping into the schedules of BBC1, the reality is that it’s the CBBC and Cbeebies channels that make up most of BBC2’s mornings. BBC2’s daytime schedules remain much as they were three years ago, slightly chaotic and rather uninspiring. At least The Weakest Link was still relatively new back then, today there is nothing that would make you switch over to BBC2 before 6pm (unless it’s to watch the morning repeats of Blue Peter).
Furthermore it would seem that Jane Root has taken absolutely no notice of my plans to revitalise BBC2 daytime with repeats of classic series and BBC1 faves. However, five (them again) at least sat up and took notice of my 15-minute archive fest Mindreaders, Memorymen and Magic and in the process created a whole schedule out of this one idea. It’s stretching it to say so, but I will anyway as I publicly postulate whether or not BBC1’s decision to bring back the afternoon play had anything to do with my proposed anthology series Story (“self-contained half hour dramas”) – at least they had the good sense to dump my pretentious, minimalist programme name.
Moving into the evenings it’s interesting to note my reliance on Jon Ronson and Louis Theroux, both of whom now seem to hark from a different age in television entirely. To be honest I am not best impressed with the real BBC2’s evening schedules – the Monday night comedy zone is not a bad time for the strand but it has consisted of uniformly weak series like the risible Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps (trust me, that series wouldn’t have got any house room on my BBC2). Then again, there is very little comedy of any sort in my BBC2 weekday schedules. I seem to recall that this was a deliberate move on my part, and today it does look like a valid strategy, with BBC3 becoming more and more the natural home of the type of comedy series that used to nestle in BBC2’s schedules.
But a few of my thoughts on documentaries turned out to be reasonably accurate with my suggestions for programmes covering the transport crises being taken up most memorably with The Day Britain Stopped (13 May 2003). However in general BBC2 seems to have moved away from my diet of Trouble at the Top-lite factual programming to a mix that although more eclectic, seems somehow less distinctive than the Thirkell canon. There are always exceptions of course, and BBC2’s Property People (7 January 2004) was exactly the kind of thing I was looking for on my channel. Just before we leave documentaries alone, can I also crow and say that my documentary on the demise of Eldorado was in the can a long time before Trouble at the Top covered the same ground in March 2002?
I tried to populate my BBC2 schedules with some appointment telly that explicitly engaged with its audience. My Louis Theroux vehicle (“Louis Theroux beings his tour, lending his camera crew and expertise to a oddball locals trying to get a slot on television or simply trying to send a video message to a loved one”), the return of BBC Choice reject The RDA and a large scale Jailbreak-style Friday night game show offered the channel ample opportunity to connect with its viewers. In reality, outside the occasional poll of best comedy series, ruined building or whatever, BBC2 often gives the impression that it hardly knows that there is anybody out there at all – certainly there is no regular, weekly focus for viewer interaction of any kind.
Back in 2001 I said that these were transitional times for BBC2, and the truth is that this is still the case today. Indeed, it will likely remain so at least until the government finally manage to switch off the old analogue transmitters (whenever that might be). The challenges that face Roly Keating are vexing because they are – quite simply – not very clear. What is BBC2 meant to be? Of all the BBC’s channels its remit is now arguably the least distinct. However, given the wonders that Keating has performed over at BBC4, there is reason to believe that he might just be the man to instill a sense of vibrancy in what was – some 10 or so years ago – the most energetic channel on British television.
Oh, and if that BBC4 Controller’s job comes up for grabs again, I’ve got a great idea for a television schedule. It features Tommy Boyd …
It’s three years since I became its controller for the day. And I still don’t watch much ITV.
But much has changed since that afternoon in the summer of 2001. Granada and Carlton have finally merged to form ITV plc, in theory heralding a unified, more organised network, and the demolition ball for many of the network’s provincial studios.
The painful financial lessons of the ITV Digital fiasco have been heeded, and the aim is now not to spar toe-to-toe with Rupert Murdoch, but to stick to what ITV does best, re-establishing it as Britain’s favourite network, alongside a modest line-up of baby channels: ITV2, ITV3 and ITV News. The channel even has a new name, ITV1, and a new controller, former CBBC supremo Nigel Pickard.
Casting an eye over my ITV schedules for the first time in three years, the temptation to brag about what I’d got right seemed irresistible. I’d cannily avoided the damaging debacle of Premiership football at 7pm, by scheduling it at 10pm, and I’d even predicted the “tantalising glossy schlock” of Footballers’ Wives, then in pre-production, although fortunately for all Denise Welch never actually showed up.
I’d managed to avoid the real-life travails of Cilla Black – who’d tired of ITV’s restless fiddling with Blind Date’s format and seen Des Lynam pinch her timeslot – by offering her a big budget daytime talk show. It was interesting to read that I’d presciently noted in 2001 that “daytime no longer holds the stigma it once did”. Since then, primetime maestros Des O’Connor and, disastrously, Terry Wogan have both fronted brunchtime showcases. Indeed, the fabulously amiable Today With Des and Mel ended up in the same slot as I’d earmarked for Des’s afternoon revival of Mr and Mrs.
Perhaps one of the most contentious elements of my schedule was the appearance of Graham Norton in my primetime schedule. Back then, this appeared to our regulators to represent an over-ambitious attempt to modernise ITV’s creaking Saturday night package, raising a sceptical eyebrow at my disingenuous assurances that he could succeed on mainstream television, stripped of the sex toys, bawdy websites and kitsch guests. But that’s just what has happened, with the BBC signing him up for a Saturday night format. Time will tell whether the misgivings of our regulators will prove to be prophetic.
Teatime remains a black hole for ITV, just as they did in 2001, and losing Home and Away to five is one of the channel’s biggest acts of carelessness in recent years. Ditching the revived Crossroads was a no-brainer, even if ITV took a bit longer to cotton on than me, as they haplessly refurbished what was left of Meg’s Midlands motel into a camp, ironic facsimile of La Mirage from Dynasty, populated by Emma Noble, Jane Asher and Lionel Blair.
But my proposal for a new teen drama to play at 5pm now looks hopelessly optimistic. Exactly what might fill successfully fill that slot on ITV remains to be discovered, but launching a new nightly soap into a schedule already congested with Home and Away, Neighbours, Hollyoaks and Family Affairs would be destined to fail. It seems there’s a finite amount of soap we can take in a single week, and with ITV piling on extra Corries and Emmerdales – a tactic I’d consciously decided to ignore – the ailing Brookside just could not survive and amazingly, even EastEnders is beginning to flag.
I’m quite proud of the fact that I’d identified newsreader Dermot Murnaghan as the perfect daytime sofa jockey, even if he did end up on the BBC’s Breakfast instead of This Morning. It’s also amusing to look back on my insistence that ITV’s morning ratings could never sink to zero in the absence of Richard and Judy, just a few weeks before this actually happened. And of course, full marks to the rival controller who dealt me that wildcard about ITV being offered an exclusive interview with Michael Jackson.
I’d managed to avoid the embarrassment of publicly dithering for years over the timing of ITV’s late news by moving it back to 10pm, although now I feel that the network’s belated compromise of 10.30pm is a better option, given that the BBC and Huw Edwards have effectively conquered that timeslot. It now feels like the ten o’clock news has been on BBC1 forever, an embarrassing surrender for ITV.
But something I had failed to anticipate was the network’s embracing of reality television. In 2001, after the high-profile failure of Survivor, it seemed improbable that this genre represented the future of ITV entertainment. Popstars had admittedly been a hit, but reality just didn’t seem the right fit for ITV. However, the channel recognised was that while its core audience might have been turned off by the tiresome, po-faced manoeuvrings of Survivor, what it did adore was glitz and celebrity.
In the autumn of 2001, Pop Idol debuted on ITV. I’d had to scratch around for a second-hand vehicle for Ant and Dec, but now here was their dream format, albeit one unashamedly borrowed from New Faces. It crowned the duo as the kings of Saturday entertainment, fronting the holy grail of television, a show that kids, teenagers, parents and grandparents could all watch together. It was almost critic-proof too – even if you sneered at the package being manufactured before your eyes, you couldn’t deny that the hopefuls could actually sing, live, in front of millions. But even the second series showed signs of breaking point, being won by a boring nobody while Simon Cowell and judges bickered pointlessly, and it remains to be seen where Idol goes from here.
Meanwhile, ITV has managed to eclipse even Big Brother with an unashamedly trashy live reality event, I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here!, again hosted by Ant and Dec and boldly stripped nightly across a fortnight, although the follow-up Hell’s Kitchen didn’t have much of a point beyond Gordon Ramsay shouting and swearing. Meanwhile, I’d had a stab at a Running Man-style reality game show for Ross Kemp. In retrospect, even if it had worked, it probably wouldn’t have been right for the network. For reality to succeed on ITV, it must have stardust and celebrity.
I also gave little thought towards “lifestyle” programming. BBC2 and Channel 4 have cleaned up with programmes on how to, well, clean up your house, programmes on how to sell your house, how to buy a house, how to go and live in a house abroad, how to go and live in a house in the 1800s, how to dress, how to find a partner, how to bring up your children. Might I have opted for an ITV take on all this dizzying activity, or is it smarter to make the channel an oasis of entertainment free from all this frenzy? It’s telling, perhaps, that ITV’s variations on the Wife Swap theme have largely failed.
I didn’t have much to say either on comedy in my presentation to the regulators, although I did pick up on the likeable Sketch Show before it hit the screens. In real life, that programme has been part of a concerted effort by ITV to develop a portfolio of half-decent comedy shows that also includes Hardware, Baddiel and Skinner, Rob Brydon’s Directors Commentary and the majestic Harry Hill’s TV Burp. For just that show alone, for the first time ever it’s possible to state that ITV’s comedy is better than the BBC’s, even if that might be a bit of a backhanded compliment.
It’s interesting to be reminded that I’d inherited Sex and the City, one of the most-written about programmes of recent years, if not one of the most watched, flung away with abandon by our fictional Channel 4 controller back in 2001. It’s debatable, however, whether it would have been quite so hip if it had been transmitted on ITV for the last three years. Still, I always had I Spy, the hidden camera show I’d proudly imported from the States, which belatedly turned up on BBC1 with Ian Wright, to little success.
But looking back, perhaps the most fascinating thing is my declaration that I’d inherited “Britain’s most popular channel … I wanted to keep it that way.” In fact, BBC1 was the most popular channel of 2001, and 2002, and 2003. It seems ITV, and television as a medium, are entering a permanent state of flux, where channels will have to work harder and harder and harder to get us to keep watching. Sometimes they succeed by being inventive and shrewd and clever. Sometimes they succeed just by flinging on another episode of Corrie. But the latter is fraught with peril in a digital world where even the most popular shows are susceptible to ever more fickle audiences. It increasingly feels that nothing is set in stone any more. 12 months ago, the notion, say, that EastEnders might be axed might have been unthinkable. Today, it’s just unlikely. In a year or two’s time, it might happen.
My aim for my schedule was to make ITV more consistent and more modern. In this ambition, I almost succeeded, but in retrospect, I was too often tempted to take the short cut of just making it more trendy. And there is, I think, a massive difference. Pop Idol is modern, Sex and the City is trendy. ITV can’t succeed as the nation’s mainstream channel by being trendy. If I became controller again, I’d be even more clear-minded and ruthless about what ITV has to be, the channel for family people.
In real life, ITV remains a schizophrenic network, the home of both Trisha and The South Bank Show. Exactly how long it can continue attempting to be all things to all people remains unclear, but long live the black arts of scheduling. And long live Ken Barlow.
In retrospect, my Channel 4 schedules read like a nostalgia buff’s dream and an advertising executive’s nightmare.
Even now I can’t quite believe I was prepared to fill up so much of my station’s output with what I blithely defended as inspired archive programming, when in reality most of it would never ever have been possible to air thanks to rights issues, hefty royalties, deteriorating or destroyed video tape and almost certainly a set of increasingly deplorable ratings.
Why did I reach eagerly for so many of my favourite shows of yesteryear, of both C4 stock (As It Happens, Remote Control, The Show and Wanted) and elsewhere (Palace Hill and The Wonder Years for starters) instead of dreaming up brave new commissions and innovative formats? Why did I make it so obvious that I was in part using this opportunity to get heroes from my childhood back on the small screen (take a bow Sarah Greene, Janet Ellis, Valerie Singleton, even Richard Stilgoe)? And why the obsession with giving work to people from print journalism whom I particularly admired but who were in no way obvious TV faces (Collins, Maconie et al)?
Well, I guess the thrill of being able to make merry with a channel towards which I bore no great malice and about which I had a huge deal of residual fondness was to blame. I had so few scores to settle with C4 I felt I could spend most of my time fashioning a kind of preposterous playpen of shamelessly self-centred treats and goodies. I didn’t perceive the station to be in major crisis or heading towards decline; drastic action and wholesale schedule upheavals were very much in the minority. Once these were out the way, the fun could begin. In short, solving what I then saw as C4’s problems didn’t seem to preclude me from then going on to recast it as a box of favourite toys, with hopefully enough to entice the casual as well as the more like-minded visitor.
I’m amazed I considered I could get away with such outrageous actions as bundling out earnest shows such as Europe Express, NewsStand and Portfolio directly after viewers had already sat through almost an hour of Channel 4 News. Strict and careful interpretations of the station’s remit, maybe; exciting and diverse treats to kick off a night of television: definitely not. A great 60-minute slab in the middle of Wednesday evening devoted to a weekly analysis of TV itself? I’d watch it, but hardly anyone else would. The Eleventh Hour, back on Monday nights? There could scarcely be a worse note on which to send viewers off to bed.
Still, I clearly believed all these things could work at the time, and took some pride in what I thought was a week’s worth of schedules sequenced and constructed for a very particular demographic. I see now that the demographic in question was embarrassingly niche, and at the end of the day boiled down to, well, me. My C4 was something I would be happy to watch all the time, and one that was indeed founded upon a sense of wanting to “please a group of mates”. In attempting to fine tune the station’s scope, and in theory be more remuneratively selective about its audience, I certainly misread the extent to which C4 would be battered by competition over the ensuing few years. I also failed to see how a distinctiveness that was commercially viable did not – and could not – necessarily equate with imagination and a rummage through the archives.
At the time of compiling these fantasy schedules, C4 was without a Chief Executive. Michael Jackson had just announced his resignation, and it turned out to be a fair few months before his successor was confirmed as Mark Thompson. It was then even longer before Thompson assumed office. This strung-out and cumbersome handover proved to be highly portentous. Looking back, the period from 2001 to present has easily been Channel 4’s most unsatisfactory to date. For those on the inside, C4 might have well have been an exhilarating place to work under Mark Thompson. From the outside, the station just looked lost, dithering and exceedingly world-weary.
Flagship drama endeavours have given the impression of being obsessed with one-note larger-than-life caricatures (Teachers, No Angels, Shameless) and comedy to “subversive” “dark” efforts mostly involving humiliation and pain. I didn’t foresee either, despite making room for something from Paul Abbott (in the shape of four-part series The Compendium on Mondays at 10pm) and the second series of Phoenix Nights, though at the time I’d no idea it’d end up being significantly inferior to the first. I laughably pitched The West Wing into Wednesday nights at 9pm, trusting it deserved such prime exposure, whereas in reality the show has failed in every single slot C4 have tried.
I launched a Film Four series on Sunday evenings, promising “old and new” productions. Mark Thompson did the exact opposite, slashing the division’s budget, staff and output. I proudly retained Fifteen to One and Countdown in their tried and tested slots of 4pm and 4.30pm. Thompson axed the first and expanded the second to 45 minutes, turning it into a meandering irritant rather than an amiable distraction. I knew Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan were on their way to C4, and it was pretty obvious 5pm was their intended berth, but my vision of a Nationwide-esque magazine differed enormously what ultimately became an impressively popular talking shop. I sought to promote As If to early evenings; C4 demoted it to Saturday lunchtimes. I went out of the way to keep Watercolour Challenge in three weekday slots; C4 ditched it completely. Meanwhile my attempt to turn the 12pm “political” spot into a more interesting proposition in the shape of half-hearted Hustings was given a far more sensible makeover as the wholly welcome News at Noon.
Melvyn Bragg defied my hopes for a swift departure from ITV to front a notional Saturday teatime arts round-up. He continues to crow about the survival of The South Bank Show, conveniently overlooking its lamentable near-midnight transmission and laughably tiny audiences. But C4 still hasn’t done anything itself to remedy its lack of decent arts and music programming, The Art Show (2002 – 03) merely ghettoising its subject matter while shedding viewers thanks to hopeless and inconsistent scheduling.
Perhaps my two biggest misjudgments concerned property/lifestyle programming, and reality television. Of the former, I offered up just one measly half hour in the shape of the resolutely dull Three Dimensions. The genre went on to become in many ways the bedrock of present-day C4, delivering reliable and substantial audiences while retaining critical appeal. My decision to axe Grand Designs was clearly a blunder of immense proportions. Secondly, my one concession to reality formats was Wanted, itself a revival of a much-lamented but little-watched remnant of the 1990s. Three years on, and this is the genre that C4 appears to rely on above all others to keep up its audience share and advertising revenue. While there have been some inspired variations (Shipwrecked, That’ll Teach ‘em), Big Brother has become an unsavoury behemoth devoid of charm and The Salon seems to have been recommissioned over and over again and bundled out wherever the channel couldn’t think of anything else to broadcast.
Such is the Channel 4 which, summoned back to the BBC sooner than expected, Mark Thompson has left behind. History may well judge otherwise, but for the time being it’s hard to come up with a list of his really significant accomplishments at C4 beyond a rapid round of redundancies and the axing of RI:SE and Brookside. And ironically it was here that I scored the only two successful predictions with my fantasy schedules. In 2001 I argued Brookside was “long past its best, but had also had numerous chances to renew itself, and failed.” I had no qualms about ditching it straightaway. Unfortunately it took another two years before the show was really gone for good, by which point it had become easily the worst thing on British television. Beyond redemption, beyond parody, it had become totally bankrupt however you chose to judge it – whether as escapist fantasy, as thought-provoking drama, even as half an hour of rationally written and directed entertainment.
Thompson’s deal with Mersey TV to scrap the soap involved agreeing to an extra episode of Hollyoaks in return. The upshot of this will be that from this autumn C4 will be locked into a fixed sequence of The Simpsons and Hollyoaks every weeknight from 6pm (and I’d never countenanced the remote chance of bagging The Simpsons from the BBC in 2001, or such an eventuality ever coming to pass in real life). It also means that, adding in Richard and Judy and the news, C4’s weekday schedule will soon be forever identical between 5pm and 8pm. Whether this proposition proves appealing or a turn-off, only the long-term will tell.
Finally, I’d proposed running a new show to replace the then-ailing Big Breakfast. The Morning After was yet another vanity project which would probably have won just as many viewers as the Channel 4 Daily. Still, even that would’ve made it technically more successful than what actually replaced The Big Breakfast, the abysmal RI:SE, a textbook lesson in how not to encourage people to switch the TV on first thing in the morning.
C4 is now in the hands of a new Chief Executive, Andy Duncan, a new Chairman, Luke Johnson, and a relatively new Director of Television, Kevin Lygo. All three face the task of restoring some palpable personality, identity and coherency to a channel that doesn’t feel like it’s improved much on the sense I got in 2001 of it “almost drifting along, rather aimlessly chasing the middle ground.” My own efforts at a remedy would, I see now, have sent it hurtling towards a possibly terminal decline. But I did enjoy playing scheduler for the day, and the challenge undoubtedly gave me a brief flavour of the kinds of scheduling minefields real broadcasters fight each other to cross every day.
A few months after I ripped up the Channel 5 schedules and started again, Kevin Lygo arrived as Director of Programmes and did much the same thing himself.
Channel 5 circa 2001 was a hideous channel, stuffed with rotten imports, exploitative documentaries, regular pornography, crappy films and the odd, cheap original programme. Only Home and Away seemed to garner a regular audience. You simply couldn’t see why C5 existed or what possible future it could have in a multi-channel environment. This was still the case when OTT examined the history of the channel on the occasion of its fifth anniversary in March 2002, where we suggested that, in its first half-decade on air, it had produced virtually nothing of any note or made any contribution to British television.
That was until the autumn of that year when original chief executive Dawn Airey left for Sky and Kevin Lygo joined from Channel 4, to oversee a huge relaunch. This saw a new name – now the channel was known simply as ‘five’ – plus a new logo and a refreshed on-screen appearance. The porn, which had already been scaled down from its late-’90s ubiquity, was dropped altogether, there was less reliance on rubbish films, and the original programming had more thought put into it. Imported drama like CSI and Law and Order gained a large, loyal audience, which the channel built on by acquiring more major US series, such as the critically acclaimed Boomtown and The Shield.
Whereas before five’s documentary output seemed to revolve entirely around serial killers or tabloid-hounded celebrities, they now featured quests to find Britain’s favourite stately home, or art critic Tim Marlow discussing various paintings. Big names like Terry Wogan, Donal MacIntyre and Carol Smillie were hired to front new series. Football coverage saw the bland, unknown presenters replaced by John Barnes – hardly any better as a host, but at least people knew who he was. 2004’s Back to Reality had almost as big a budget, and garnered almost as many column inches, as Big Brother (albeit nowhere near the viewing figures, alas). They also managed to lure Colin McAllister and Justin Ryan, the stars of BBC2’s The Million Pound Property Experiment, to sign an exclusive deal after winning a fierce bidding war. These moves and acquisitions confirmed that five was no longer the joke it once was but, finally, a “proper” terrestrial TV channel. This is still the case, even though Lygo returned to Channel 4 at the end of 2003, and was replaced by one of his protégés, Dan Chambers.
Certainly, I watch more of five now than I did three years ago, and not just football either. The recent Comedy Heroes series, where Bob Monkhouse, Ken Dodd and Ronnie Barker selected archive classics, was enjoyable, and a trilogy of documentaries on the history of TV advertising were informative and entertaining. Indeed, they were good enough to have been on Channel 4 …
And that’s the problem that five has at the moment. Programming has undoubtedly got better, but it seems to be too similar to the other channels. Five have enjoyed success with lifestyle programming – but so have BBC2 and Channel 4, and it’s often hard to remember which series belongs to which channel. Factual entertainment has been enjoyable, but the archive-based series haven’t done anything that Top Ten or I Love … haven’t done on the other channels. Back to Reality glorified in the fact that it was shamelessly derivative of Big Brother and the like – that was more or less the major selling point – but it’s still hard to see what five are doing that you can’t see anywhere else.
Of course, this was the case three years ago, when it was full of TV movies and porn, much like dozens of satellite channels, but now it seems to have turned into Channel 4 and a half. Indeed, what five most reminds me of is ITV in the mid-’80s, with resolutely mainstream entertainment mixed with imports and highbrow documentaries. That’s not altogether a bad thing, as it undoubtedly offers more choice to homes that are yet to go multi-channel. But there’s still the question of what’s going to happen to five when it’s one of a myriad of channels in virtually every home in Britain – hence why ITV have almost abandoned factual programming, choosing to specialise in the areas (drama, light entertainment) that it knows it’s good at and that pull in an audience. Five, meanwhile, has a bit of everything, and simply isn’t unique enough. That was the case in 2001 (apart from being uniquely awful, maybe) and it’s still the case in 2004.
Lygo attempted to alter the channel’s fortunes by aiming at an older audience, hence the appearance of arts shows, military documentaries and some classier films and drama. This is a rather different approach to my attempts at rescheduling the channel in 2001. I aimed at a younger audience, rigorously stripping and stranding so those who spent the evening channel-surfing would know what was being screened before they got there. I also scheduled programmes with obvious youth appeal in peak slots, opposite more heavyweight fare on the other channels. I knew C5 couldn’t hit as hard as the other channels in terms of promotion and big names, so I attempted to make sure it was everyone’s “second choice” channel – you’d go there if you didn’t like what was on the other channels. A cop-out? Maybe, but it’s a commercial operation. The reality was that Channel 5 was not, and never will be, up there with BBC1 and ITV, so why try and pretend otherwise?
That’s not to say that my way of doing things was any better than how things turned out, obviously. My schedules were heavily youth-orientated, which would have alienated older viewers, and it wouldn’t have been able to generate the publicity that the new five has done with its acquisitions and major signings. Indeed, it could be said that, uniquely, the fantasy controller was rather more conservative than the actual controller. We both dropped the porn, of course.
That said, I will still happily take the credit for some aspects of the new, successful five. The most obvious is the imported drama. In my fantasy schedules I stripped imports seven days a week at 9pm, including CSI, which had just arrived on the channel. My idea was that, as the channel couldn’t afford to make quality drama on its own, buying in series such as this allowed big-budget entertainment. Five have said that they purchased CSI because it was considered too mainstream for Channel 4 but just right for a channel such as themselves with a slightly less intellectual audience – in many ways they have the same profile as the main US networks. In my schedules I “bought” the rights to The Practice, a long-running series with umpteen episodes in the vaults that could garner something of a regular audience. In reality five purchased the rights to the even longer-running Law and Order, which scheduled after CSI inherited much of its audience and became a schedule staple. These rocks in the schedule are exactly what five needs in today’s broadcasting environment.
That said, some imports haven’t been that successful. Back in 2001, I endured fruitless negotiations with Channel 4 to purchase Dawson’s Creek, which I wanted to run at 9pm. Come 2003, and five actually did purchase Dawson’s Creek from Channel 4, although they bizarrely ran it at 2pm on Saturday afternoons, and then even more bizarrely rescheduled it to 10am. An unsuccessful purchase, then, but that’s no doubt down to the scheduling – as the channel is now aimed at an older audience, seemingly a 9pm slot was unavailable. I also “bought” Buffy spin-off Angel from Channel 4, which the real five did as well shortly after, and that too flopped and was relegated to a late night slot. Perhaps this was the “old” five’s last hurrah?
In my schedules I also launched a daily late night show with Melinda Messenger, one of my contracted celebrities, containing games, phone-ins and features. In 2002, five did indeed launch a daily miscellany, only at 7pm. The thinking here was that a young audience didn’t want to watch Emmerdale or Watchdog, which is probably true enough, but unfortunately for five they didn’t want to watch Live With Chris Moyles either. Perhaps if a more appealing presenter had been hired, and an actual purpose for the show had been found, it may have been rather more successful. In my schedules, I wimped out of scheduling any new programmes on weekday mornings, suggesting the competition was too fierce. In reality five launched The Terry and Gaby Show, a major, expensive commission, at 11am – and it flopped. Because the competition was too fierce. Well, I did warn them.
Back in 2001, I’m sure nobody predicted five’s current schedule, or it’s elevated position in the eyes of viewers and executives. I certainly didn’t. But then, as I said at the time, five had virtually no fixtures in the schedules, or much in the way of audience share, so a complete overhaul was possible. It just needed one person with the energy and the balls to rip up the schedules, work out what they wanted to see on the channel, and go ahead and do it. It could only have happened on Channel 5 of course – it really had nothing to lose, and everything to gain.
As such, I’d like to nominate Kevin Lygo as a hero for all of us who have ever looked through the Radio Times and thought we could do better. Course, it helps to have a couple of decades’ experience in broadcasting first…