ITV is told to stop the rot of soap opera

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The Independent Online
The Independent Television Commission yesterday criticised ITV for relying too heavily on soap operas and drama to bolster ratings, prompting a swift and furious response from the broadcaster.

Peter Rogers, the ITC chief executive, in an unexpectedly hard-hitting review of ITV's 1996 performance, said "the rot has got to stop" because of the channel's increasing use of soaps and drama serials such as Cracker and Kavanagh QC to fill its schedule.

But Nick Elliott, ITV's head of drama, hit back at the ITC describing its conclusions as a throwback to a time when regulators got involved in the commissioning of programmes. "It is a kick in the teeth," said Mr Elliott yesterday. "Drama does very well and it seems to me that they have a problem with us doing well: that they want us do less well. Why aren't they doing something about Channel 5 being so tacky and running old films every night at 9 o'clock?"

The ITC's concern was prompted by ITV increasing Coronation Street to four times a week last year and Emmerdale to three times a week at the expense of documentaries, arts programmes and children's drama. It also pointed out that dramas can often run seven nights a week at 9pm.

The effect of all this drama was a fall in the channel's documentary output. The number of Network First current affairs documentaries was halved to 18 across the year and led to the average amount of documentary programming on ITV falling from one hour a week in 1995 to 40 minutes in 1996.

Arts programmes fell from an average of 33 minutes per week to 31 and children's drama fell by six minutes a week to one hour and 10 minutes.

"I don't mind being accused of being high-minded," said Mr Rogers. "Soap operas require a large commitment from viewers and there is some unease about the sheer number of hours devoted to serials."

Mr Rogers said there "would be trouble" if ITV did not diversify away from its reliance on drama: "We want to see the crowding-out stop."

Comedy was also highlighted as an area of weakness for the network as a whole and the ITC asked the channel to make room for innovation even if meant pushing out popular dramas.

Much of the quality of ITV's output was praised. It liked the Jimmy McGovern drama Hillsborough, and other programmes, including Wilderness, Faith in the Future, Savage Skies and coverage of the European football championships.

The ITC was especially pleased that violence screened before the watershed was halved and that screened between 9pm and midnight was cut by a third.

Channel 4 emerged largely unscathed from the review, although The Girlie Show was singled out as "open to charges of crudeness and superficiality". It also noted the failure of Gaby Roslin's chat show and was worried about an increase in repeats which went up by 1 per cent to 43 per cent of its output.