Struggling ITV clears schedules for talent show

Britain's Got Talent grabs 50 per cent of Saturday peak-time viewing audience
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It's not every day that a commercial broadcaster clears a week's worth of prime time scheduling for a 73-year-old break dancer who goes by the name of "Grand Master Fred", a man who bites chunks out of apples as he juggles them and a Greek-Cypriot father and son Riverdance tribute routine.

But then it's not very often such acts bring in 50 percent of Britain's television audience and millions of advertising revenue in the depths of a recession. Every night this week, barring Wednesday's Champion's League final, up to 13 million people will tune in to ITV to watch the final stages of this year's Britain's Got Talent which culminates in a grand finale this Saturday. The ratings war this weekend is already a forgone conclusion but for ITV Britain's Got Talent is more than just a talent contest – it is a shining light in an otherwise grim landscape for the commercial broadcaster.

Although it is now in its third season, 2009 will be remembered as the year Britain's Got Talent went truly global – thanks in part to the astonishing international internet success of Susan Boyle, the 47-year-old West Lothian church volunteer with an extraordinary voice who looks set to become this year's winner. To date more than 100m people around the world from New York to New Zealand have logged in on You Tube to watch her defy our collective prejudices and deliver her perfect rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream".

Prior to this week's grand countdown, each Saturday night show's were consistently raking in between 10 and 13 million viewers, the equivalent of 47-53 percent of the total peak time audience.

The timing could hardly be better for ITV which has been struggling to regain (and maintain) market share.

Back in the mid-nineties, when family-friendly game shows such as Who Wants to be a Millionaire were at their zenith and the reality TV format was just emerging, ITV could boast a 40 percent of Britain's peak time audience. Ten years later and a non-stop stream of reality shows later, the broadcaster's peak time audience share is in the low 20s.

Struggling with falling advertising revenues and a plethora of new digital channels, ITV is having make nearly £500m in savings over the next three years to make ends meet and has announced a 1,600 reduction in its workforce.

Britain's Got Talent – and it's stablemate The X Factor – are the only bright lights in what is otherwise a pretty dire situation. Both are the brainchild of pop svengali Simon Cowell, who is now arguably one the most influential figures in British television as well as music. And it very nearly didn't happen at all. The show's original host, Paul O'Grady, defected to Channel 4 and it was only after the US network NBC took a punt and won big ratings that ITV bought it, bringing in Ant and Dec as frontmen.

"It was a tough show to sell to ITV," Cowell said. "But I remember sending a text to ITV five minutes into the first audition saying 'This is going to be a huge hit'. It just works.

"It is down to who turns up and we are lucky that we get this incredible selection of people. Among all the wacky and good people you get tonnes of people who wouldn't have a cat in hell's chance of getting a recording contract and they turn into stars overnight."

And another reason why this year has been even more successful if the internet. The sound of Susan Boyle so rapidly went global mainly thanks to Demi Moore and Ashton Kucher having tweeted about her to their 1.6 million followers.

In fact despite the show's financial success for ITV the company missed a trick by not reaching an agreement with YouTube on how to sell advertising against clips of the show, an oversight that cost them in excess of £1m. It is now in negotiations with the video sharing website on precisely how to rectify that.

Talkback Thames, the makers of the show, say they are more than happy with this year's performance. "The show seems to have captured the public's imagination, this year more than ever. Perhaps it's because people are looking for something that gives them a feel-good factor during the recession and Britain's Got Talent does that."

Runners and riders: Some of the strangest semi-finalists

*Mama Trish

Bellydancing 18-stone drag queen, Peter Coghlan, 48, of Stafford.

Enjoys Carry On films and says his comedy idol is Benny Hill.

One of 13 children who used his talent for comedy to get noticed and deflect the barbs of schoolmates, who bullied him for being camp.

His wife of 21 years, Tracey, first set eyes on him as he marched past in his Sea Cadets uniform, when he was 12 and she was six. They have two sons, Jonathan, six, and Isaac, four, who are both autistic.

*Fabia Cerra

Voluptuous burlesque dancer whose act – in which a nipple tassle fell off – caused 39 complaints to Ofcom. Aged 35, mother of one.

Grew up on Oxford's notoriously tough Blackbird Leys estate, the child of an Italian father and a Brummie mother.

Began dancing aged nine and became a world champion disco dancer in her teens. Has written an autobiography, In 2 Minds, telling of her descent into a series of schizophrenic breakdowns.

*Stavros Flatley

Greek-Cypriot father and son Riverdance comedy tribute

Demetrios Demetriou, 40, and his son Lagi, 12, of north London.

The stockily-built pair wear blond wigs and headbands for their mickey-take of Michael Flatley's Riverdance. Demetriou, who has a map of Cyprus tattooed on his belly, developed the act as part of a cabaret turn at his Greek restaurant 10 years ago, when Flatley was at the height of his fame.

*Nick Hell

Street performers Nick McQuillen, 26, and his fiancé Sharren Welsh, aged 34, of Sunderland.

McQuillen, who sells loans in a call centre during the day, is fascinated by the Victorian tradition of sideshow acts. Began by teaching himself to force nails up his nose in his dad's garage. Was taught fire-eating by a friend.

*Fred Bowers

Breakdancing grandfather, 73.

Began breakdancing five years ago when, picking himself up after a fall, he found himself "spinning on one knee". Picked up moves by watching street dancers on television.

*Barrow Boys

Dairy farmer Sam Parris, 27, beef farmer and agricultural contractor Bobby Barns, 18, and beef farmer and builder Lyle Burrough, 20.

The farmers, all from Exeter, met through the Young Farmers' Association and only began performing together in January last year.

After seeing them at a Devon agricultural show, friends egged them on to entered Britain's Got Talent.

*Brit Chix

Punk-pop girl band

Guitarist Victoria Wilding, 26, known as T, and her sister, bassist Maddy Wilding, 23, both of Boston, Lincolnshire. Drummer Paisley McHugh, 26, of Aberdeen.

Learned to play their instruments last year and have performed more than 1,200 gigs.

*Jackie Prescott and Tippy Toes

Dog and cat groomer and her dancing Staffordshire bull terrier cross

Prescott, 45, of Oxford, works at Battersea Dogs and Cats home and was present when Tippy Toes was born.

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