A positive view from the cockpit

THE MONDAY INTERVIEW; Charles Allen
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A strange game of musical chairs has taken place at the top of British television in the last few years. Nobody seems to be in the right job anymore.

Fourteen months ago, the proud and arrogant London Weekend Television was taken over by Granada in a bitterly fought battle. Out went LWT's dynamic and populist chief executive Greg Dyke (best known as Roland Rat's dad), clutching pounds 7 million but mourning for his job.

In came Charles Allen, a personable Scottish accountant, aged 37, pilloried by the industry when he first took control of Granada Television in 1992 for having a background in catering. "It's a terrible comment on the way British television is going," groaned one of his own top producers as the cast of Coronation Street shivered in distress.

While Granada continued to bang out the hits (Cracker, Prime Suspect, Band of Gold), there were compliance problems as experienced hands departed, creating crucial gaps.

The industry was shocked to its roots last year when Granada TV, the longest established commercial company, attracted a pounds 500,000 fine from the Independent Television Commission regulator for repeated violations of the programme code.

At 9am on Monday, I find myself padding along the winding corridors of LWT's 14th floor on my way to meet Mr Allen. It is odd to see him sitting in Dyke's old corner office, with spectacular views over the Thames. Even the furniture is the same, just rearranged. "This is the cockpit of London," he observes with satisfaction.

But Dyke, always stressing his man-of-the-people touch, used to take his children to school and whiz in around 9.30am. Allen, with no family ties, goes down to his boat on the Thames between Marlow and Henley on Friday nights. He had left the boat at 6am.

Since switching to television three years ago, he has very slightly caught the TV bug. Are there stars as well as pound signs in his eyes?

"I take scripts to the boat, principally drama ones. You can read them in about half an hour. It's very enjoyable. I say to the programme makers, `I don't know anything about your business, but I have an opinion'."

To his credit, he read the script for Granada's latest spectacular drama, Band of Gold, which depicts the unbeautiful life of six prostitutes, and predicted in public it would be a hit, provided it was not made in a tarty manner, which it was not.

"I'm in a no-lose situation. I've no reputation to live up to. They can simply say, `The caterer got it wrong'." He laughs and smiles a lot.

He is a firm believer in broadcasting companies making programmes, provided it is done efficiently. He said he never understood the logic behind new-style publisher broadcasters which came into fashion with the 1990 Broadcasting Act.

This is borne out by LWT producers. "Allen has had a benign, encouraging impact in programme areas. As a chap, he's self-deprecating, very easy to like, and has a good sense of humour. He has learnt the business quickly. Being taken over is never very nice, but it has not been bitter".

Granada/LWT currently supplies 41 per cent of ITV's new nationally networked programmes. This means that in the current harsh debate between advertisers and programmers about how to repair ITV's dent in ratings (prime time ratings are down some two per cent), Granada is happy to spend more, secure in the knowledge that it will mean more work for the troops.

But Allen says he is also extremely interested in making "high-quality, low-cost programmes", making pounds 10,000 stretch over a decent hour-long programme. This is the kind of product which satellite and the new Channel 5 are panting for.

Part of ITV's problem stems from over-reliance on some elderly dramas and people shows, of which LWT has its share.

"We want to create the new LWT by taking the best of what was there in the past. In every element of our business, we have retained the best talent. We want to grow our programme-making focus."

Allen has just moved Sally Head, Granada's distinguished head of drama, across to LWT to strengthen its team. "She will be looking for new, challenging drama. It will not happen overnight; more like two to three years. Her job is to look for the best new drama for Friday and Sunday nights and to focus on the weekend", so protecting LWT's franchise.

Allen is hawkish over advertising rates for peak times (one of the ad industry's chief grouses) and thinks the mass audiences ITV delivered are undersold. "Between 7pm to 11pm, nobody touches our loyalty factor as viewers often commit themselves to long viewing sessions. We don't sell that. We are not getting the right rewards for our peak programming."

But LWT's advertising performance does not look particularly impressive at present. It is the only ITV company whose share is downyear on year. Former LWT managers point to the departure of Ron Miller, the legendary sales director. "He managed to convince advertisers that ABC1 viewers were more valuable at the weekend than during the week," crows one.

The Government's recent proposed media ownership changes offer Granada little scope. Allen says the company is happy to join in any future "tidying up" of ITV should the rules be further relaxed, allowing it to buy a third ITV franchise (only small ones are available).

But he does see real scope for moving into satellite television, with Granada offering its own small bouquet of four or five channels based on existing programming. As an example, he cites how ITV's This Morning programme, made by Granada, could be packaged as separate elements - health, travel, lifestyle features.

But he is gloomy about pros-pects for UK digital terrestrial television, saying it will take ten years to get started. He is vehemently opposed to the Independent Television Commission's approach of trying to sell off the new digital terrestrial channels individually to the highest bidders.

"It kills it stone dead," he says. "The only way to make digital terrestrial television work is having everyone work together.The BSkyB operation is ready to go digital."

Granada holds a 10.8 per cent stake in BSkyB, with Gerry Robinson acting as its chairman. In contrast to rival investor Pearson Television (now run by Greg Dyke), Allen says he and Robinson have a good relationship. They were part of the New Century Television bid which offered the astonishingly low bid of pounds 2 million for Channel 5 and is now deemed out of the race.

If Charles Allen is still working at Granada in three years, I suspect he will have added a requirement to be on the inside political track to his business skills. Maybe some TV people are in the right job.

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