Conor Dignam On Broadcasting
'Love Island' is sinking fast, but will Charles Allen go down with it?
Monday 24 July 2006
Last week's news that Ofcom's chief executive Stephen Carter would be stepping down earlier than planned caused a buzz around the industry. Not just because Carter was leaving at the end of this week - rather than in October as originally planned - but because his name has been widely mentioned as a possible replacement for the ITV chief executive Charles Allen.
Whether he's headed for ITV or not, Carter's early exit added to the hum of speculation about Allen's future. Even senior figures in ITV's own offices in Gray's Inn Road are privately talking about the need for change at the very top - and suggesting Allen's time is finally up.
Of course, we've been here before - many times. More newsprint has been used up speculating about Allen's "imminent" departure than is good for the environment. And if there's one thing we know about him, it's that he has a talent for survival.
As chief executive of Granada he survived the collapse of ITV Digital, the pay-TV joint venture with Carlton that burned up £1bm of shareholders' cash. He then survived the blood-letting after the merger of Carlton and Granada, when some investors demanded a change in ITV's management. Instead, it was Carlton chairman Michael Green whose head rolled.
More recently, Allen used up another life when the former BBC chief Greg Dyke led a consortium including Apax and Goldman Sachs that tried to take control of ITV, but whose bid was rejected as too low. Allen's response was to launch yet another charm offensive with investors, a £100m savings drive at ITV and plans to return £500m to shareholders this year.
For the City, this looks like too little too late and another sign that ITV under Allen lacks confidence in its own ambitions to deliver growth and instead has fallen back on cutting costs further - including in programming.
The broadcaster's share price has now dropped below £1 compared to the 130p it reached during Dyke's failed bid. Last week, it was hovering around the 95p mark, a depressing verdict on ITV's management.
Today, Allen's position looks weaker than at any time since he took the reins at the newly created ITV - and the bad news keeps coming. The summer has been horrible for ITV. Despite delivering big World Cup audiences, advertisers have decided to stay away from ITV1's schedules. June's ad market was down by 3 per cent, and ITV's advertising revenues for July are expected to fall below £100m for the first time since 1994.
And then along came Love Island. If you've not seen it (and the viewing figures suggest you haven't), it's a reality show with young men and women on an island in Fiji who are expected to snog or fight - or both. This is a second run for the show, which last year was called Celebrity Love Island and featured the likes of Abi Titmuss, Rebecca Loos and Lee Sharpe (who could at least claim to be C-list celebs).
This year's show lacks the "celebrity" prefix and viewers don't know - or seem to care - about its characters. Love Island's ratings have so far been a disappointment, but they have the potential to be disastrous. One night last week, the 10pm ITV1 airing was beaten into fifth place behind BBC1, BBC2, Channel 4 and Five with an audience of 2.2 million - 11 per cent of viewers.
Love Island is failing to deliver the numbers - and it still has five weeks to run smack in the heart of ITV's peak-time schedule. It could sink further -and possibly pull Allen down with it.
Of course, responsibility for the show really rests with ITV's director of television Simon Shaps and his teams. But it's the kind of ratings disaster ITV1 and Allen simply cannot afford. In many respects, it symbolises one of Allen's big failings as ITV leader - to instil a creative energy and confidence in the company.
Despite all this, though, Allen's achievements at ITV should not be overlooked. He has delivered savings from the merger of Carlton and Granada to the tune of £120m. He's developed a clear, coherent digital channel strategy that, with ITV2, ITV3, and ITV4, makes sense to audiences, advertisers and investors.
And he's wrung significant concessions out of Ofcom when it comes to the amount ITV pays for its broadcasting licence, with the annual costs last year cut in half, saving the business £135m a year. So when it comes to making savings and winning regulatory concessions, Allen has more than delivered.
But much more is required from the leader of ITV than just cutting costs. ITV desperately needs leadership that will inspire and energise the broadcaster and give it back some of the confidence that has drained away.
Few believe Allen is the man to do that. Perhaps strangely for a man regarded as something of an "outsider" in the TV industry, Allen has been asked to deliver the MacTaggart lecture at next month's Edinburgh TV Festival. It's an honour, but many now feel it may turn out to be a farewell speech. Of course, Allen might still be around in six or 12 months, or longer. But somehow I doubt it. This time, it really does look like the great survivor has run out of time.
Why British TV will never make a blockbuster like 'Lost'
One of the perennial questions for British TV drama is why we can't do US-style blockbusters like Lost or Desperate Housewives. These multi-episode TV events dominate the American schedules. In comparison, even the most ambitious British projects are much smaller. Robin Hood, a BBC1 autumn showpiece, is 13 45-minute episodes. And that's a long run; BBC1's acclaimed Life on Mars lasted just eight episodes.
British TV executives would love to be able to do long runs for hit shows. The BBC's drama chief, Jane Tranter, told Broadcast last year that her dream was for BBC1 drama to pull away from what anyone else could do in scale and ambition.
But it will never happen, for reasons of money and culture. The US TV industry is a huge beast that can pump millions into pilots for series that may never be made. The Lost pilot cost $9m. British broadcasters will never have cash like that.
But possibly more important is the cultural history of British TV. For many writers, directors and actors, there is a snobbery in British TV drama that means the one-off TV drama is more prestigious and attractive than a series.
Actors can be reluctant to lock themselves into a long run. Christopher Eccleston quit as Doctor Who after just one series. And writers can sometimes see working on long-running series as being on a production line.
Things are changing, but British TV is fundamentally different in scale and approach to America. For all the industry's ambitions, it'll never compete with the likes of Lost.
Conor Dignam is the editor of Broadcast magazine
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