Media: `I will not be defeated by the News at Ten elitists'

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The Independent Culture
I believe that what passes for public debate about the quality of our television is dominated, as it probably always has been, by a noisy elite who are not natural consumers of mass-appeal television. These people ignore the audience for whom the programmes were made. And they are fixated on a television Shangri-La in which ancient programmes stay young and beautiful, and nothing ever changes.

For me, catering for the mass audience is the biggest challenge you can rise to; actually much more challenging than making programmes that your peer-group will love, and the broadsheet critics will approve of. The assumption that mass equals dilute, dumb, and downmarket is common - but wrong. The best talents want to play to the biggest audiences. It's our job to bring the two together.

We've looked more and more to real life situations and characters for entertainment as well as information. People and places we can identify with, and some we can enjoy being mildly shocked and horrified by - what the ITC [Independent Television Commission] sniffily calls: "The search for the worst of human nature." It is here we find the authentic experience - comedy, tragedy, humanity - that we can readily connect with. Not only do I believe that these people-based documentaries are a legitimate and valued part of a mixed peaktime schedule,

I am very proud of them.

One of my aims in taking over the ITV network schedule was to put factual programmes back into peak [time]. We've done this. Documentary output more than doubled last year, and the new schedule has allowed us to bring "keynote" docs and series back into peak - where they should be - from the ghetto of 10.40.

However, peaktime ITV is the toughest place in television. So we ask programme-makers to make the piece with the peaktime audience very much in mind. We'd be deluding our suppliers and ourselves if we didn't.

But this doesn't mean that we don't have a rich range of material from the light and populist, to the seriously challenging. And it doesn't mean we don't take risks. A 90-minute film from Paul Watson on the destructive effects of Alzheimer's disease is hardly a low-brow ratings winner. But I wanted Malcolm and Barbara to play at its full 90-minutes in peak and be available to the biggest possible audience because it was a great film, an important film and because the subject touches the lives of so many British families. An amazing 5.3 million people were still watching at its harrowing 11 o'clock conclusion. It played against a repeat of Men Behaving Badly and still got a 28% share against BBC1's 33%. What better demonstration of the power of mass television?

Of course none of this would have been possible in the old ITV schedule. Malcolm and Barbara - a post-watershed piece if ever I saw one - could not have been scheduled before 10.40.

A large part of it's power is in its length. An hour would not have done it justice. Millions would have missed one of the major television programmes of the year.

Work of the quality and purpose of Malcolm and Barbara, The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, and the Stephan Kiscko drama-documentary A Life for a Life, will continue to be part of the ITV mix in peaktime because they connect directly to the experiences and interests of our viewers. But there's a trade-off. We can continue to offer the grit and challenge of ratings-risky programmes because we are also running unashamedly popular stuff such as Neighbours From Hell, Airline and Parking Wars.

Change always prompts fear. I can only think that the older we get, the more we judge TV against what has gone before.

But we're all guilty of Golden Ageism. Mine is the 1970s. Things will never be as good again as they were when Anthea (that's the original version) did a twirl for Bruce on The Generation Game; Rigsby first courted Miss Jones in Rising Damp; and Reagan and Carter said: "Get yer trousers on, you're nicked!" in The Sweeney.

The truth is that British television has always been studded with brilliant nuggets of pure gold, with a body of good work we all remember with pleasure and affection, and a morass of serviceable, but forgotten material.

Look at ITV ten years ago this week - and those towering examples of television excellence, Tarby's Frame Game; Combat - a game show pitting Anneka Rice against the British Army; and Split Ends, a hairdressing sitcom with Anita Dobson? Actually, I hadn't forgotten that last one, as I was responsible for it as head of entertainment at Granada.

We're now more responsive to our audience. Important minority programmes are still part of the mix, but they are there more on merit than by regulatory dictat. ITV is showing South Bank Show specials in peak; it has scheduled its new single documentary strand, Real Life, in peak, and has commissioned Alan Bleasdale to adapt Dickens for a new, mass audience. I do not call this a retreat from the high ground. We've always existed in a system cleverly designed to accommodate different services offering different things without cutting each other's throats for the same sources of revenue. But against much talk of remits and purposes and obligations, somehow we're all expected to do the same thing - be popular and take risks and be innovative and deliver our public service programmes and avoid frightening the horses - in short be all things to everyone, all the time.

This is not sensible and it's not possible. It's the reason BBC1 has lost its way in its efforts to be more like ITV, marginalising its challenging programmes, and using BBC2 to shore up its public service remit. It has abandoned ambition in the pursuit of [viewing] share.

We're practising risk and ambition right now with the new schedule. We have been going barely four months. We're trying new things at new times and will continue to do so. Some things have done better than others; it would be a fluke if everything worked first time. I know News at Ten is missed by some, but as we predicted, there's a big appetite for news at 6.30pm, and increased audiences for ITV at ten and ten-thirty show we were right to make the change.

I can't think of a time in recent memory when we've had a richer mix of dramas, attracting audiences of between seven and 15 million. I defy anyone to say that Butterfly Collectors, Hunting Venus, Hornblower, The Last Train, Trust, Wonderful You, The Vice, Bostock's Cup and The Grimleys over the space of 14 weeks doesn't demonstrate range, risk and ambition.

It's far too easy for our critics to withhold credit for what we've achieved. Oh yes, they say, Butterfly Collectors: Pete Postlethwaite in another ITV cop saga. I - and I think seven-and-a-half million other people - saw something altogether different; an all too rare exploration by one of our most talented television dramatists, Paul Abbott, of life in Britain's urban underclass. Television that makes us question our assumptions about criminality, poverty and family responsibility.

I'm proud of the way ITV can do that. The schedule change represents the most significant evolution in ITV since the 1990 Broadcasting Act. Yes, it was prompted by a commercial imperative - the need to bring audiences back to ITV, especially in mid to late peak and beyond.

Those who were rejecting News at Ten were younger people - ITV's future - whose needs and preferences we ignore at our peril. We're now picking up many of these younger viewers for the Nightly News at 11pm. And, for the record, half-way through the year were ahead of our share target for 1999. This represents real growth in audience over last year.

I'm clear what ITV is for - to cater for mass audiences. To get them we have to be good and we have to be popular. The two go hand-in-hand, and there's no greater challenge and - for me - no more honourable pursuit. ITV is "People's Television". A phrase that was coined not by me, or by Alastair Campbell, but by Sir Robert Fraser, the ITA's [Independent Television Authority's] first director general.

What he said back in 1960 is as apposite today as it was then: "If you decide to have a system of people's television, then people's television you must expect it to be. It will reflect their likes and dislikes, their tastes and aversions, what they can comprehend and what is beyond them. Every person of common sense knows that people of superior mental constitution are bound to find much of television intellectually beneath them. "If such innately fortunate people cannot realise this gently and considerately, and with good manners, if in their hearts they despise popular pleasures and interests, then of course they will be angrily dissatisfied with television.

"But it is not really television with which they are dissatisfied.

"It is with people."

David Liddiment is director of programmes, ITV. He spoke on this subject at The Royal Television Society last week

HOW ITV'S SCHEDULES HAVE CHANGED IN 10 YEARS

28 June 1989 - PM

7.30 Coronation Street.

8.00 Sporting Triangles. Andy Craig hosts family sports quiz.

8.30 Split Ends. With Anita Dobson and Peter Blake.

9.00 Albert and the Lion. Drama by Kevin Clarke.

10.00 News at Ten. Followed by ITV National Weather.

10.30 Thames News. And weather.

10.35 Boxing Special. British Heavyweight Championship. Gary Mason vs Jess Harding.

30 June 1999 - PM

7.30 Coronation Street.

8.00 The People's Vets. Malcolm has to help a dog hit by a car.

8.30 Diamonds Are Forever

10.50 ITV Nightly News; Weather.

11.10 London Tonight.

11.20 Fantasy World Cup. Brigitte Neilson is humiliated again in the first of two highlights shows .

11.50 Adrift (1993 Christian Duguay US). A couple's dream cruise becomes a nightmare.

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