Power & Influence in the Arts / Television: Everything according to schedule: In 1992 Marcus Plantin was given several hundred million pounds and a television network. What can he show for it? By Kevin Jackson

Click to follow
In the late 1950s, Lord Thomson of Fleet coined a phrase which has entered the common stock of English: 'A stake in commercial television is the equivalent of having a licence to print money.' Almost 40 years on, the epigram may still sound as pungent as ever, but its aptness is less clear. For one thing, some of the people who obtained such licences a couple of years ago, after the great franchise bidding war, have found the price cripplingly high. There's not much benefit in printing your own money if the notes then have to be sent straight to the Treasury.

For another, the rules governing commercial television's old money-printing game have undergone a significant change. Among the most notable consequences of that change have been the creation of a new and extremely powerful post in British television - Network Director of ITV - and the arrival in November 1992 of Marcus Plantin as its first occupant.

An updated version of Lord Thomson's metaphor might make Plantin something like the Master of the ITV mint. Plantin himself seems to prefer describing his job in similes variously derived from the circus ('I'm like the man who keeps plates spinning on sticks'), or from the marketplace ('I'm the chief buyer'), or from necromancy: 'I'm a practitioner of the Black Art of scheduling.'

Put most simply, however, it is Plantin's job as Network Director to decide which prime-time programmes will be made for ITV, and when they will be shown. In the past, these decisions were made by a committee of ITV company people. As Plantin puts it, 'the companies essentially did the commissioning and scheduling themselves. But it was felt that there was a need to open up the market, and that the buying operation should be autonomous. So the ITV companies have given over to the Chief Executive and my team of about 20 the right to spend a lot of their money. It's an awesome responsibility.'

Indeed; and though the sums of money involved are sufficiently daunting in themselves - his first year's programme budget stood at pounds 540 million - Plantin's responsibilities are more than simply financial, as last year's tussles over the possible rescheduling of News at Ten indicated. If Plantin manages to achieve programmes of high quality, as well as the high audience figures ITV has traditionally enjoyed, then he is the man who will be giving the BBC its worst jitters on the run up to charter renewal time. He has long had a reputation for competitiveness: in 1985, when he was recruited from the BBC to LWT by John Birt, it was 'because I'd been giving their programmes a bashing, you see'.

Alternatively, if the third channel appears to be plunging deeper and deeper into the mire of tabloid values, it is Plantin who will be depicted as chief barbarian warlord, as he is well aware. 'There is this thing going around about ITV since the new licences have happened that it would all tilt towards wet T-shirt television. Well, it isn't happening, and it's not going to happen, because it's not what our viewers want and it's certainly not what the advertisers want.'

Pessimists who suspect that ITV plans to get far richer by getting far worse have, Plantin maintains, simply failed to understand the way that it has to operate in a more fragmented market. Many advertisers want to reach the viewers with the largest wallets and the sniffiest tastes. Unless ITV wants to subsist on ads for golden syrup, it will have to find ways to appeal to affluent young, particularly now that Channel 4 is doing so well at winning its own revenue.

So, far from presiding over an apocalyptic collapse in standards, Plantin intends to make certain movements up-market, albeit slowly: 'Audience loyalties are such that they do not like to take change too quickly. I can't believe I'd stay in my job very long if Coronation Street went.' Even so, a careful spectator of his first winter season would have noticed some unexpected developments.

'Old ITV probably underestimated its audience. I think already, in the very short time we've been operating, the work we're doing in factual programming proves that: things like clearing the prime-time schedule and making it over to a single documentary. We did one recently on the leukaemia story at Sellafield, and played it from 8 o'clock through to 10 o'clock. Now, that sort of thing was pretty unusual in the old ITV, but over 8 million people stayed with that heavy subject.'

As another index of the 'new' ITV, Plantin points to the scheduling decision he made about Absolutely Fabulous. 'It's obviously the show of the moment, it's everyone's show. Now, how do you take on something like that?' Plantin's decision was not to try and compete with another comedy, but to offer viewers a complete alternative - Commando, a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Result: Absolutely Fabulous took the biggest figures, but Commando certainly wasn't wiped out, and the real winner, Plantin feels, was the audience.

If that particular scheduling decision really is a taste of the ITV to come, then it is not so hard to see why Plantin is sanguine about competition making the future of British television brighter rather than ever more hideous. How bright it would remain without the better products of the BBC (and, to be sure, Channel 4) on screen to set standards is another matter. Still, there is evidently logic as well as rhetoric in his claim that 'For ITV to be a big player, it's got to be different from all the rest.'

Yet difference is immensely difficult to achieve: it depends not just on the creativity of programme makers, but on the tolerance levels of audiences, who may find themselves bored with such serious ideas as, say, the theme week about arms dealing that Plantin has lined up for the autumn. It depends on the willingness to gamble sums of pounds 5 million and upwards on 'slow burners' - shows which may eventually develop into treasures but take time to win viewers.

No one questions Plantin's ability to deliver audiences: from The Two Ronnies to Blind Date, from Parkinson to Saturday Night Live with Ben Elton, his track record is shiny with success, and helps explain the large sum ( pounds 750,000) he was paid to quit LWT for Network Centre. But can he find new ways to deliver audiences, or ways to deliver a new audience - that rising generation of teenagers who will be the affluent young of 2000 and 2010? However appealing ITV's on- air offerings may become in the next few years, they will be hard pressed to rival the interest of what is happening behind the screens.

(Photograph omitted)