Media: White knight rides in to Carlton

It is the company we all love to hate. Steve Hewlett is out to save its reputation for factual programming. By Jane Robins

Steve Hewlett, the new Director of Programmes at Carlton, is best known as the editor who worked with Martin Bashir to secure Panorama's historic interview with the Princess of Wales -winning the highest ratings for a current affairs programme in television memory.

Since that Panorama coup, the rise and rise of Steve Hewlett has been something of a television industry phenomenon. A year ago he came within a hair's breadth of winning the Controllership of BBC 1. When he lost out in the final stages of the race, he immediately left the BBC to work for Michael Jackson at Channel 4 as Head of Factual Programmes.

Now, after only 10 months, he has again been lured away; this time to Carlton, where he will start in September. "The general perception is that Steve Hewlett has been brought into Carlton to save its reputation for factual programming, and help get its licence renewed," says an executive at a rival television company. And the thesis makes sense.

Over the past few months Carlton has had a bad press. Last year its documentary, The Connection, won eight international awards and was sold to 14 countries. But in May the programme was branded a fake. Instead of interviewing members of Colombia's notorious Cali drugs cartel, the Carlton team was accused of using a retired bank clerk and a friend of a researcher to act the parts.

The industry watchdog, the ITC, started an investigation, which had been active for only a few days when another Carlton programme was challenged. This time an "exclusive interview" with Cuban President Fidel Castro was accused of being cobbled together out of old Castro clips. That documentary, Inside Castro's Cuba, is also being scrutinised by the ITC.

Steve Hewlett must now persuade the ITC that these were rogue programmes and that Carlton's general reputation is intact. It is important that he succeeds, since it is the ITC that will decide sometime in the next few years whether Carlton's licence is to be renewed.

But Mr Hewlett's task is complicated by a history of tension between Carlton and the ITC and, to some extent, tension between Carlton and the rest of the television business.

"When Carlton won the London franchise from Thames in 1993," says a TV executive, "there was a feeling in the industry that brave and noble Thames had been robbed of its franchise by a more philistine company. Carlton became the organisation that we all loved to hate."

At that time Michael Green's Carlton was somewhat brash, and was promoting itself as a commissioner-broadcaster, an alien concept to producers and editors keen to see in-house programming nurtured by the big companies. The criticisms of Carlton came dramatically to the surface when the ITC published a damning report of the company's first-year performance.

It said Carlton was performing "well below expectations", and demanded "significant improvements". The watchdog also lambasted a huge Carlton success, Hollywood Women, dismissing its "lurid superficiality" and branding it as "essentially glib".

Carlton came out fighting. Its then managing director, Paul Jackson, annoyed the ITC by accusing its members of becoming mere television reviewers, and irritated the rest of the industry by praising Carlton's commercial approach. Programme-makers still remember Mr Jackson's pronouncements as a declaration that serious factual programming was dead.

Little by little, Carlton has been recovering from that rocky start. With the acquisition of Central TV it bought in a wealth of programme- making skills and by this May managed to secure a rosy annual report from the ITC.

The regulator said Central had delivered a popular and high quality schedule, and was particularly complimentary about Carlton's drama output, which included the Daphne du Maurier classic Rebecca, and the medieval mystery series Cadfael. Then The Connection scandal broke, and it was as if the clock had been wound back to the bad old days.

Those who have watched the rapid ascension of Steve Hewlett think he has the right qualities to make amends between Carlton and its detractors. He has a formidable reputation as a factual programme-maker, being in one sense the inventor of the now ubiquitous docusoap. Before Vets in Practice or Driving School were even dreamed of, Mr Hewlett commissioned Children's Hospital, one of the first big series to make "ordinary people" into documentary stars.

He also has a blue-chip track record at the most serious outposts of current affairs. He was responsible for last year's acclaimed Provos programme on Northern Ireland, on which he worked with veteran reporter Peter Taylor, and which included interviews with self-confessed former terrorists. It takes someone with an intelligent approach to journalistic ethics to get such controversial programming on to the airwaves.

Perhaps most important though, he is perceived as the sort of man the ITV network can do business with. Insiders say that Carlton's approach to selling its programmes to the network centre has been too often lacklustre, that the company has not always embraced the modern cut and thrust of marketing programmes.

Mr Hewlett is well trained in that world. The BBC is now run on a system of hard sell by programme-makers to channel controllers. And the top brass at ITV, the people who commission and buy programmes, have done a stint at the Beeb. To greater and lesser degrees, they all know Steve Hewlett and how he works.

Others think that Carlton has slipped behind on nurturing a strong talent base. While the BBC has been constantly in the news for offering extended contracts to its stars from Jeremy Paxman to French and Saunders, and behind the scenes has been doing deals with top directors and producers, Carlton, on the factual side at least, has been relatively idle.

Steve Hewlett is well equipped to address the problem of the talent-base, but his appointment also has its critics. He is untested on the wider stage upon which he has now arrived. As Director of Programmes he will be responsible for everything from light entertainment to drama, a huge departure for a documentary-man.

And he faces a daunting challenge as part of the team that is charged with turning ONdigital into a cash cow for Carlton. Formerly known as British Digital Broadcasting, ONdigital is the pounds 300m 50-50 joint venture with Granada that amounts to a gigantic bet that the British public will prefer digital terrestrial television to Sky's digital satellite, or the digital cable services that will be unveiled next year.

Carlton reckons that its advantage in this three-horse race lies in its assertion that viewers will opt for 30 quality channels on ONdigital, rather than the huge and variable assortment of about 200 channels offered by its competitors. That claim is scorned by Sky, which has signed up all but one of ONdigitals' 30 channels anyway.

But of particular relevance to Mr Hewlett is a second criticism - that some of Carlton and Granada's digital channels are not of high enough quality. According to Merrill Lynch's media analyst, Neil Buckley, they have big overlaps with each other, and it would make sense to merge them.

This presents a whole new raft of challenges for Steve Hewlett. If ONdigital's programmes are not sufficiently attractive, the project may fail to attract the two million subscribers it needs to break even, let alone pull in the five million it needs to make the pounds 250m a year predicted by Granada boss Gerry Robinson.

It would not be surprising if Mr Hewlett is feeling a little frightened by these challenges, and by the speed with which his career has progressed. Five years ago he was a lowly editor of Inside Story, pitching programme ideas to the Controller of BBC1, Jonathan Powell. Now, Mr Powell is the highly regarded Head of Drama at Carlton, and Steve Hewlett is his boss.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine