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
Tuesday 04 August 1998
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.
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