'I'm going to take TV to the people'

He hates the BBC. And he's pretty sniffy about Big Brother. With his new project, though, Noel Edmonds explains how he is aiming to hit back at both

A year after his high-profile falling out with the BBC, Noel Edmonds is in ebullient mood. He feels, he says, like a man reborn. This has much to do with being a free agent once more, and Edmonds has wasted no time increasing day-to-day involvement in his TV production business, Unique Group, through which he is planning the imminent launch a handful of new TV channels. But it also has something to do with the timing of our meeting: the day news emerged of the removal of Peter Salmon from his position as controller of BBC 1.

A year after his high-profile falling out with the BBC, Noel Edmonds is in ebullient mood. He feels, he says, like a man reborn. This has much to do with being a free agent once more, and Edmonds has wasted no time increasing day-to-day involvement in his TV production business, Unique Group, through which he is planning the imminent launch a handful of new TV channels. But it also has something to do with the timing of our meeting: the day news emerged of the removal of Peter Salmon from his position as controller of BBC 1.

It was Salmon, remember, who was responsible for cancelling Saturday night prime-time fixture Noel's House Party and with whom Edmonds claimed his relationship had become "untenable" last year after BBC 1 rejected his other programme ideas en masse. Not that Edmonds is gloating today... although, he readily admits: "I do now feel quite vindicated - appointing someone like that to do that job was a grave error. He is a very ordinary man who made BBC 1 into a very ordinary channel."

What also hurt Edmonds, however, was the pasting he received from the press. Many commentators seem to have held him single-handedly responsible for the dumbing down of television, and his departure from the BBC after an association spanning 30 years was widely cheered. Without those grunge tanks and that dreadful Mr Blobby, Auntie could get back to producing "proper" entertainment for Saturday nights. Well, that was the theory, at least. When he ran into The Sun's TV columnist Gary Bushell recently, Edmonds claims, his arch critic grudgingly conceded that, on the basis of BBC 1's subsequent output, perhaps he had been, well, a tad unfair.

Edmonds has no interest in turning back the clock, however. Far from it. "I had no desire to continue on TV beyond 50," he claims. "Although the way it all ended was not to my liking - it was painful - I now feel I have a new life. I'm in charge of my own diary. I can do what I want. It's like being someone else."

And it is with this sense of new-found vigour that Edmonds is now turning his attention to his long-standing TV production interest, Unique Group, through which he hopes to cash in on the technological revolution now shaping the future of British television.

In spite of his on-screen persona, Edmonds has long been a shrewd businessman. "I began talking about myself as a brand and viewers as consumers long before it became fashionable to do so," he says. And through Unique he established interests in a broad range of broadcast-related activities - from facilities hire to programme production and talent management. Meanwhile one of the UK's leading independent radio producers, Unique Broadcasting - in which Edmonds has a stake - recently floated on the Alternative Investment Market for £45m.

"It's not that I'm into technology - I'm barely computer literate," he insists. "But I do recognise the incredible potential of using new technology to develop new programme and even channel ideas." So it is, then, that one of Edmonds' current preoccupations is exploiting the broadcast potential of "video meetings" technology to create TV formats better able to capitalise on the untapped talents of the British public. Video links between people's homes, workplace, pub or other live venue and a broadcaster can be exploited to produce new, popular and entertaining TV, he says. "No, we're not talking son of Big Brother," Edmonds sniffs. "That show did little of true innovative merit: it was simply another souped-up TV studio format." What Edmonds is interested in is taking TV to the public outside the studio. So, Unique is developing a competition format in which two households compete from home to fulfil tasks broadcast to and from them by video link. Also in the pipeline are a talent show with people performing from their sitting rooms (based on the belief that 99 per cent of us are too shy to dream of applying to Stars In Their Eyes); home jury, dating and lottery formats, and a pub quiz show.

The growing number of companies operating their own, "business TV networks", meanwhile, will lead these "corporate broadcasters" to commission not just corporate programmes but entertainment, too, Edmonds predicts: "Why shouldn't a company like JCB put out entertainment or sport across its own TV network? At the moment there are rights issues, of course, but shortly this will be achievable."

Nor is there any reason why original programming made by such private companies could not then be sold on to broadcast TV. Unique is now working with companies including Granada Retail, HSBC and Bank of Scotland to explore such programme-making opportunities. It is also in negotiations with pub chains and owners of other venues to develop programming to exploit their own untapped intellectual property. In a tie-up with comedy club chain Jongleurs, Unique (which also represents a number of comedians through its talent management wing), is developing a London Comedy Festival to take place next year, with inevitable TV spin-offs.

Another area ripe for development, Edmonds believes, is new channel formats. Which is why with Paul McKenna, the hypnotist and motivational expert, Unique will shortly be launching a personal wellbeing channel called Pozzitivity - probably to be available within the Sky Family satellite subscription package, although contracts are yet to be signed.

Also in development is a business channel, Biz4Biz, enabling companies to buy four-minute slots of airtime to use however they choose - to air programming, sell products or simply run ads. It's an unusual concept - "a bit like an on-air Yellow Pages", Edmonds admits, but one that has already been approved by the Independent Television Commission. And, he adds: "With companies paying up-front, it will be the first new channel to launch fully funded when it starts on air."

Then there's a children's channel, "based on the premise that the bulk of quality intellectual property in printed form will never end up on TV as channel controllers are too preoccupied with hunting for the next Teletubbies-style moneyspinner." Again, this will span the internet, broadcast television and print media.

Edmonds' enthusiasm for the programme-making opportunities offered by new technology is unquestionable and, it seems, fuelled in part by a belief that today's terrestrial players - and BBC TV in particular - lack the nous and flexibility to survive. "I don't think the BBC is sustainable in the long term," hedeclares. "How can it be, without finding another method of funding? Even the proposed restructuring with BBCs 1, 2, 3 and 4 is unlikely to reverse the trend: market share will continue to diminish and, as it does, the licence fee will become increasingly hard to justify until eventually it comes down to niche size."

Consider the alternatives, he adds: "Walmart TV - if it were to exist - would have incredible programming produced for proper budgets. The Kelloggs Breakfast Show, for example, would be top quality and well-funded - if it were anything else, Kelloggs products would be moved to the back of the shelf in Walmart stores. While some fear the future, I believe we can look forward to a return to TV that is well-funded - although that funding will come from new and different sources."

Success, Edmonds continues, will increasingly depend on being open-minded and receptive to new possibilities. These are not traits that he associates with traditional broadcasters. "New technology is what will allow us to make new types of programme that engage and entertain, and to do so well within reducing programme budgets. The great thing about the broadcast technology revolution is the removal of broadcaster arrogance," he says with undisguised relish. "It cuts everybody down to size."

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