No I don’t really. Actually, I blame Michael Grade. Based on Grade’s track record, lots of folks were expecting great things when he took the helm at the third channel, but in fact his reign has been safe as milk, with no big initiatives worth the name.
Let’s be honest, ITV is in a bit of a bind, and the bind relates to what Newt was talking about the other week in terms of the local franchise. Enormously profitable in principle – notwithstanding long-term decline in the multichannel environment – but suffering a bit of a liquidity problem and a serious squeeze on profit margins. Much of this has to do with falling advertising revenues in a time of economic crisis, something that’s likely to get much worse before it gets better.
What makes a bad situation worse is that you’ve got a financial crisis occurring alongside what seems very close to a period of creative bankruptcy. Sometimes I look at the schedules and wonder if the schedulers are just going through the motions. Sometimes I look at the schedules and wonder if the schedulers are actively taking the piss. And the response to the financial squeeze is even more dispiriting. It looks very much as if this year is going to be a write-off.
What we’re going to see lots more of is reality shows, particularly from the Cowell stable. Dancing on Ice, currently gracing our screens, has been made longer. X Factor gets longer every year, and now has a running time of around four months. Britain’s Got Talent is being scheduled to run for twice as long this year as last. Throw in I’m A Celebrity, and that’s an enormous chunk of the year already taken up. And the reason for this is that reality shows, especially those with phone-in voting, are extremely cheap for the amount of airtime they occupy. It’s easy to blame Simon Cowell for destroying British TV, but he’s only acting according to the laws of supply and demand, and there’s plenty of demand for what he’s supplying.
This wouldn’t be so bad if there was plenty of variety on offer, but there is less and less. The sitcom is virtually dead in the water. You don’t, for some reason, get films in prime time any more. And so it goes. Light entertainment is reduced to producing new formats – or resurrecting old ones – for Ant and Dec to present. And, if the chirpy Geordie duo aren’t available, you can toss them to Vernon Kay, who’s nearly as good and a lot cheaper.
And if you thought light entertainment was bad, look at drama. One of the – possibly unintentional – effects of all these repeats on the digital channels is to remind you of just what a juggernaut ITV drama used to be. These days, its remit seems to be restricted to two things – a) producing Lynda La Plante’s latest crime drama, and b) finding something for Suranne Jones to star in. The logical next step in the credit crunch period should be for a Lynda La Plante drama starring Suranne Jones.
I’ll be honest, Lynda La Plante is not my cup of tea. Every one I see seems to have the same formula, with some vaguely topical crime as a mcguffin, but the spotlight being firmly on the feisty female detective with the sexist bosses and the failing relationship. But loads of people, especially women, lap this stuff up, so I can’t really complain.
Suranne Jones, on the other hand – I saw the recent Unforgiven, and thought that, though badly miscast, she put in a pretty good performance. I quite like Suranne Jones, given the right vehicle, but she’s indicative of something bigger. Let me take you back to a far-off age – well, the early nineties, anyway – when ITV paid a shitload of money to sign Phillip Schofield and Anthea Turner to five-year exclusive contracts, without any clear idea what to do with them. As a result, they ended up deploying their enormously expensive stars in one duff vehicle after another. Plenty of critics have told them on plenty of occasions that, with very few exceptions, it’s the format and not the frontman that sells a show. Yet, they just don’t learn. They sign Trinny and Susannah but they don’t own What Not To Wear. They sign David Dickinson but they don’t own Bargain Hunt. Etc. What’s more, this sort of thinking has also spread to the Beeb, although Thompson’s comments about salaries might also bring these golden handcuffs deals into question in the medium term. Until then, we can look forward to endless dramas starring Suranne Jones whether or not she’s the right actress for the part.
I’m also deeply disturbed at plans to downsize The Bill to one episode a week. This is being dressed up as a dedicated post-watershed slot, 52 weeks a year, at a more lucrative time for advertising. But, since The Bill is a very rare example for ITV of a show that’s both a critical and a ratings hit, I would have thought the sensible thing to do would be to leave the twice-weekly Bill as it was. But then, moving to the new format means you can lose half the cast as well as making various other savings.
If I was looking for savings, the first place I would look is the soaps, which have reached such a point of saturation as to prove to all but the most blinkered soap addict that sometimes less is more. If you remember the twice-weekly Corrie or Emmerdale – or EastEnders come to that – it can be a bit of a shock to cast an eye over what they’re like now that Corrie, for one, can run for six episodes a week. The writers have to choose between stretching stories well beyond their natural life, or putting in some half-baked idea and puffing it up as a major plot development. Some of the actors are visibly knackered. I suspect many fans are knackered trying to keep up. Trimming the soaps back to a sensible schedule would make both creative and economic sense. But then, of course, you’d need something to fill those gaping holes in the schedule.
Ah well, it’s not looking good. And with its share price heading down into the penny stocks, perhaps the only way out for ITV is to get itself a wealthy sponsor – maybe a Russian oligarch, or a sheikh of Araby, or possibly the Chinese Communist Party. It may just be time for Grade to start brushing up his Mandarin…