Analysis: Just give them the facts

The Diana effect has revived the fortunes of the TV documentary. By Paul McCann
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IT IS a truism hardly worth stating that Diana, Princess of Wales, was and is worth cold hard cash to the media. She sold magazines, newspapers and now it appears she can even help the more lofty world of current affairs television.

Last week's ITV programme on that crash (Diana: the Secrets behind the Crash) may have attracted a universal panning from critics and commentators for its reliance on the theories of Mohamed Al Fayed, but it also attracted an audience. The 9pm documentary and discussion hour attracted an average 12 million viewers according to unofficial overnight BARB ratings. This gave ITV a 53 per cent share of the available audience, which is more than respectable for that slot on the commercial broadcaster.

The obvious logic is that the populist nature of this particular programme gave it the ratings it did and that otherwise current affairs would fail in that slot. Certainly the orthodoxy of the former ITV programming director Marcus Plantin was that the only thing to put on at 9pm was drama, drama and more drama.

To squeeze past this mindset, Mr Plantin's requirement seemed to be that factual programmes had to be about sex, crime or the paranormal. Which would explain the Hollywood Women style of factual programming. Current affairs, however, is solidly banished to after News at Ten. Here, worthy programming - like a John Pilger Network First - can safely be aired to satisfy the requirements of the Independent Television Commission.

Yet once upon a time ITV did schedule meaty current affairs at 9pm and, according to the guru of BARB ratings, the researcher and television historian William Philips, they regularly achieved ratings of around 10 million. According to Philips, the Diana programme's figure is not that exceptional.

And even in the 10.40pm slot there is a strong appetite for factual shows. ITV recently attracted 7 million viewers to Savage Skies, its proper science documentary about the weather. At 9pm this programme could easily have managed an audience of 12 million.

The kicking that ITV has received from advertisers because of its ageing, down-market audience prompted the management changes of last year that brought in a new chief executive and programming director in David Liddiment. His desire to attract more ABC1 viewers has already resulted in the continuing search for a peak-time one-hour, current affairs programme. If ITV decides against moving News at Ten, and therefore cannot put the new show in that slot, it will most probably run at 9pm.

Of course the Diana effect was still felt for ITV. This is easily illustrated because the story of the Princess's death did similar things for Channel 4's Dispatches last week.

A much more hard-headed programme, Dispatches pulled apart the conspiracy theories aired by ITV and pulled in nearly 5 million viewers. The programme's weight means it usually achieves under 2 million viewers - even Cutting Edge can normally pull in three to four million.