Media: Plenty of drama and no crisis, insists Granada: ITV's oldest franchise holder angrily rejects accusations that standards are slipping, writes Martin Wroe

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The Independent Online
'No, there's no crisis,' says David Liddiment, director of programmes at Granada Television, 'but I can understand why people would think there might be.'

Mr Liddiment is a cool customer, tall, bespectacled and suavely dressed. There are no visible traces of panic, despite the fact that his company was charged in Parliament last week with retaining its television franchise for the north-west of England 'by false pretences'.

It has not been a good week for Granada Television. Last Wednesday in the Commons, Labour's National Heritage spokeswoman, Ann Clwyd, claimed that 11 of 13 directors at the company had 'disappeared' since it won its franchise, jobs had been 'slaughtered', new management was ripping the heart out of the prestigious production house, and the promises in its franchise application were not worth the paper they were written on.

The following day Sir George Russell, chairman of the Independent Television Commission, met Gerry Robinson, chief executive of the Granada Group, and Charles Allen, chief executive of Granada TV, and showed them a letter from Ms Clwyd asking him to consider revoking the company's licence.

On Friday, as if to prove Labour's point that all the best people were leaving Granada, Ray Fitzwalter, its distinguished head of current affairs and former editor of World in Action, announced that he was leaving after 20 years to set up on his own. And on Sunday the papers revealed open rebellion against Granada in the ITV network because of a plan to double the price it charges for Coronation Street, the nation's most popular television programme.

Mr Liddiment, who joined Granada in 1975 as a promotions scriptwriter, has never been in a storm like this and can barely conceal his anger with Ms Clwyd. He calls her accusations 'grotesque misrepresentations' and says her letter is evidence that she does not know the industry she is writing about. On specific charges, he is equally dismissive.

Ms Clwyd says that the company's Films for Television department has been dismantled. Not so, replies Mr Liddiment: 'It is still there, but we merged it with our movie department so we have one department supplying television movies and movies for cinemas.'

As for Granada's franchise promise to make 14 films, putting four a year up to the ITV network, he says it still has more than 14 in development and is offering six to ITV for 1994. There is no reason, he adds, why the company might not again make award-winning box-office hits like My Left Foot: it has just started pre-production for the non-television film version of Prime Suspect and has six other movies in development. Nothing has changed.

Ms Clwyd alleges that the hi-tech news operation promised for Liverpool has been closed and moved to Manchester. Rubbish, says Mr Liddiment: 'It is in place and is in Liverpool.' While Granada Tonight is now a magazine programme made in Manchester, its news element comes from Liverpool. It is also 'simply untrue' to suggest that regional programme budgets have been savaged: 'Our commitment to regional programmes is as strong as ever, we are in line to exceed our franchise promises here.' Neither is it true that the technical research and development programme has gone, he says.

On the subject of the 25 senior positions that have been lost, Mr Liddiment argues that while the posts may have gone, 'the functions have not disappeared'.

The drawback with this argument is that a creative company is only as good as the people it employs. Losing one great but ageing broadcaster, David Plowright, is one thing; when a further 25 depart it begins to look like an exodus, threatening future output.

Mr Liddiment puts it all down to the current broadcasting environment, which is undergoing 'the greatest change since the advent of television in the UK'. He insists that Ms Clwyd is wrong

to say that 370 people have lost their jobs or face redundancy, but concedes that the number is above 300. He calls the process rationalisation.

This sort of job-shedding ought not to be so surprising, he says, given the growth of the independent sector, the 25 per cent quota it enjoys, and the shift from staff-based to freelance-supplied television. 'You can't expect an independent production sector in British television and not pay the price for that in terms of indigenous staff at Granada or Central or the BBC.'

He is equally implacable when faced with the suggestion of 'boardroom savagery' at the company and the reminder that only two of the 13 directors at the time of its quality-enhanced application now remain. To describe Andrew Quinn, now chief executive of the ITV Network, or Malcolm Wall, now deputy chief executive at Meridian, as sadly departed, as Ms Clwyd suggested, is 'grotesque', he says. Other board members have retired. But that leaves quite a few who appear to have been pushed because they would not jump. On this issue he remains non-committal.

But behind the specific allegations that Mr Liddiment so enthusiastically denies lies the widely held conviction that something has changed fundamentally at Granada, the longest-serving of all the ITV franchisees, during the past year. The company that made current affairs programmes such as World in Action and quality dramas like Brideshead Revisited - proving that commercial television could be both popular and high quality - has begun to emphasise entertainment programming, never its forte, at the expense of its rich heritage in current affairs and drama, say former senior executives.

There was a time, critics claim, when Granada was arguably the best production house in the world. But few would bother having the argument today.

Mr Liddiment reels off a list of new programmes: the current affairs series Disguises, 'as innovative as any current affairs that Granada has been associated with in the past', which began last week, and the drama series September Song, which began on Monday.

He challenges Ms Clwyd to provide evidence that the company has reneged on promises in its franchise application to make specific programmes - it listed 130 titles, of which 85 have already reached production and 23 are under offer or in active development. Only 22 have not made it thus far, some of them rejected by the new ITV Network Centre, which since January has had responsibility for commissioning and scheduling programmes.

But the voices of suspicion will not go away. 'Since Plowright left,' says one senior programme maker, hitting the nerve of the argument, 'it has been a company geared towards increasing revenues for shareholders every six months.'

Mr Liddiment says it is wrong to suggest that since Mr Robinson arrived Granada Television has put profits before programmes. He mounts a reasoned and - on specifics - often convincing case for the radical surgery that has taken place in recent months.

In one sense Mr Liddiment cannot win. He has been at Granada for 18 years - he was there when it was indisputably great - and he signed the public letter of alarm at the departure of Mr Plowright. He was part of the embattled group of programme makers who were privately dismayed at the arrival of Mr Allen last year.

A year on, he is a vigorous apologist for the way the old has been swept out by the new. 'Well, he would, wouldn't he?' say the cynics. 'They made him director of programmes.'

But if Mr Liddiment is right about the need for ITV companies to recognise the new environment in which they operate - framed by the huge variety of annual payments made by the franchisees to the Treasury and a legal requirement for a quarter of programme making to come from independents - then he may be speaking a painful truth that some other ITV companies have yet to learn.

In 1993, he says, Granada no longer shapes what the ITV network looks like, and it has no guaranteed output. This is what its critics, led by Ms Clwyd, have failed to recognise.

'Those certainties are no longer with us,' he says, 'but I am determined that Granada should face up to that reality and provides as distinctive a contribution as it has done in the past.'

But there is at least one certainty. The hard-nosed Granada has been trying to negotiate upwards the price it receives for Coronation Street, and there have been threats to take it to BSkyB. But in the event, it emerged yesterday that the soap opera was staying put, at 7.30pm on ITV - for a reasonable price hike.

(Photographs omitted)