ITV creates a 'golden circle' of stars to halt ratings slide

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The Independent Online

The crisis-hit ITV network is putting its faith in a Hollywood-style star system in an attempt to stop its top actors defecting to the BBC.

Big names such as Ross Kemp, John Thaw, Sarah Lancashire and Robson Green are to be bound even more closely to the network in an attempt to halt ITV's slide in the ratings and declining advertising revenues.

The terms of their "exclusivity" contracts vary, but they largely prevent the stars working for other channels. The golden circle receives special status at ITV, getting the pick ofpromising scripts.

Last week, Ross Kemp renewed his ITV contract, believed to be worth around £1m a year, for another two years.

The new deal guarantees that Mr Kemp, best known for his role in BBC's EastEnders, will be continually on screen in prime-time ITV dramas. The first series of his detective drama Without Motive was a big hit last year, attracting audiences of nine million.

ITV's controller of drama Nick Elliott said yesterday he was happy with his star "stable" and confirmed that he is hoping to sign up new names, but would not reveal his wish-list.

BBC sources suggest that ITV would like to poach EastEnders actress Tamzin Outhwaite at the end of her current contract. Others mention Michelle Collins, who played Cindy Beale in EastEnders, and Ken Stott, the star of ITV's crime series The Vice.

Silent Witness actress Amanda Burton is said to be resisting ITV offers to join the top team and is instead negotiating individual projects with both ITV and the BBC.

The star system is heavily criticised by some television executives who argue that it has not prevented ITV producing dud shows. They point toThe Glass, a drama series starring John Thaw as a double-glazing salesman, with Sarah Lancashire as his young love interest, which crashed.

"The show was just not good enough – and you should never cast John Thaw in a role in which he has to do kissing," said one ITV executive.

Mr Kemp had a similar disaster as a lawyer in the drama series In Defence. While Robson Green, who pulled in audiences of 11 million for the 1999 drama Rhinoceros, attracted only around 6.9 million with his latest offering, Blind Ambition.

"These well-known top stars can guarantee you massive audiences for good dramas," said the executive, "but they can't save bad projects."

Others speak of the need to do "vanity programmes" for some of the stars. "If Robson Green says he really wants to do a one-off film in which he plays a bird-watcher," said a drama producer, "you can find yourself stuck."

Carolyn Reynolds, head of drama at Yorkshire Television, said the star system made it tougher for actors who are not on the list, but admitted: "If I was a broadcaster I would want some emphasis on the stars just to get my drama noticed in the TV listings."

Most ITV executives agree that Mr Elliott has little choice but to continue with the system, believing that BBC1 is awash with money and will use it to poach ITV stars.