Fincham may go for laughs

The outgoing boss of Britain's biggest independent TV producer talks to Meg Carter
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The Independent Online

As the chief executive of British TV's largest independent production company, Talkback Thames, Peter Fincham has overseen numerous critical and ratings hits - including The Lost Prince, Green Wing, How Clean Is Your House?, They Think It's all Over, The X Factor and The Bill. Now, however, Fincham is leaving the production powerhouse he's built over the past 20 years, and the industry is asking what he will do next.

As the chief executive of British TV's largest independent production company, Talkback Thames, Peter Fincham has overseen numerous critical and ratings hits - including The Lost Prince, Green Wing, How Clean Is Your House?, They Think It's all Over, The X Factor and The Bill. Now, however, Fincham is leaving the production powerhouse he's built over the past 20 years, and the industry is asking what he will do next.

Fincham's declared aim once he leaves Talkback Thames in June is to spend more time with his family. But it is already likely that he will return swiftly with a new production company, perhaps focused on his particular passion, comedy. "I would like to get back closer to programme-making. I'm probably at my happiest with a smaller range of programmes I can feel closer to," he says.

In his first interview since announcing his resignation, Fincham doesn't sound as if he is about to turn his back on UK TV production. In fact, he's quick to highlight new opportunities for independent producers.

"When we started out, independents were a pimple on the broadcasters' backsides," he says. "The broadcasters' dominance has been partly due to their role as monopolistic gatekeepers of the broadcast spectrum. But this is being eroded, and when the digital switchover occurs their power will weaken further."

It's all part of a fundamental shift as the TV industry changes from a buyers' market into a sellers' one, he believes. Fincham is an advocate of the creation of half a dozen or so Hollywood-style production studios with lots of smaller independent producers working alongside. Talkback Thames has a permanent staff of 800 - a similar size to Channel 4. It produces 850 hours of programming a year of all types for all broadcasters - a studio-style approach unlike most other independents, which tend to specialise either by programme type or channel. And it turned over £131m in 2003.

Fincham is no champion of all-out consolidation, but he believes that small independents will need to become more business-savvy. "There will always be a role for small independents as, ultimately, consumer choice is best served by plurality," he insists. "As they find broadcasters won't fully fund their programmes, however, all producers will have to look for a more diversified source of income." He predicts that many will migrate towards programmes able to generate additional revenue, such as through phone lines or interactive services.

"Certain programmes - comedy, for example - sell an awful lot of DVDs. When a £1m show can generate £10m in DVD sales it starts to look like the tail wags the dog, and the tail could become the dog," he says. "Independents must be adept at managing the commercial value of their programmes. There will be a real polarisation between big, revenue-earning properties and those programmes you simply make before moving on to the next one."

Talkback Thames has come a long way since Fincham's Cambridge contemporaries Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith launched the original Talkback company above a Carnaby Street martial arts shop to make radio ads back in 1981. Much of its subsequent success has been down to Fincham, who has been managing director since 1986. He built the business on strong, ongoing relationships with talent as diverse as Stephen Poliakoff and Chris Morris.

Then, in 2000, he led the £62m sale of the business to Pearson TV, which subsequently became part of the media giant RTL, its current owner. RTL brought it together with Thames in 2003. This explains why Fincham has been in the frame for a number of top broadcasting jobs including, last year, the chief executive of Channel 4. Was he disappointed to lose out to Andy Duncan?

"I can't imagine what else might come up on the broadcasting side that would be more appealing than Channel 4," he ruefully admits.

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