Media: ITV places faith in real-life soaps to help reclaim ratings

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ITV has poached the man behind The Driving School and Vet's School from the BBC to produce "soap documentaries" to help reposition the ailing commercial channel.

Grant Mansfield, currently managing editor of network features at the BBC, is being brought in by ITV to develop the so-called popular factual programmes that are currently in vogue with television executives. He was also responsible for the BBC's The Rugby Club and Airport which proved that documentaries can challenge soap operas as ratings winners.

ITV announced Mr Mansfield's appointment at its winter season launch yesterday. The channel already has four fly-on-the-wall documentaries, Neighbours From Hell, Builders From Hell, House Hunters and Airline ready to be broadcast over the winter and wants more for next year.

"The effect is to re-align our audience by putting factual programmes at the heart of our schedule," said David Liddiment, the new director of programmes at ITV.

Mr Liddiment is charged with turning around ITV's slipping ratings. Competition from cable and satellite channels and a resurgent BBC has forced ITV's share of viewing down by around 5 per cent to 32 per cent over the last two years.

He hinted that factual programmes, and others scheduled after News at Ten, would make the channel younger and more upmarket: "Our audiences' views, tastes and needs are changing," he said.

ITV has an American sit-com, Dharma and Greg, that it hopes will become a new Friends and a documentary about clubbers that will be shown after News at Ten in the New Year.

The channel is yet to announce its full Christmas line up, but is expected to put the Spice Girls at the heart of the schedule, broadcasting their concert in Turkey after the Queen's Speech on Christmas Day. The channel is also expected to air Home Alone 2 as its big Christmas Day film and a screen version of The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde.

Mr Liddiment hinted yesterday that ITV would not be bidding for the National Lottery Show when its contract with the BBC ends in a year's time.

ITV also announced yesterday that it had signed former Soldier Soldier star Robson Green to an exclusive deal to star in ITV programmes until 2000. The contract is reportedly worth pounds 1.5m to the star ITV describes as its young David Jason.