Nepotism? Don't even think about it

Rob Brown, Media Editor, talks to Steve and Jeff Anderson, brothers with two of the most important current affairs jobs in ITV
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The Independent Online
The new man in charge of current affairs on Britain's biggest commercial channel is prepared to do whatever he deems necessary to strike a popular chord with viewers and thereby serve up eyeballs for advertisers; he'll even axe his own brother's programme if he has to.

Steve Anderson, recently appointed ITV's controller of news and current affairs, obviously hopes it won't come to that. He says he has every faith in his younger sibling, Jeff, who became editor of World in Action last week.

"Granada are convinced they've got the right person for the job, and I also think Jeff will be a great editor," he says. "Jeff's got a lot of drive and fire. He's brought a lot of panache to the programmes he's edited in the past. I'm hopeful we're going to see a vibrant, punchy World in Action on ITV every week."

But what if his brother doesn't deliver? Would Steve Anderson be prepared to commit the career equivalent of fratricide? There's an awkward smile as he replies rather ominously: "There can be no special favours - for anyone."

ITV's new current affairs chief clearly means business. And that's because, like the new triumvirate in charge of the network, he views it very much as a business that must publicly set itself - and meet - tough ratings targets if it is to retain the confidence of advertisers.

Announcing his appointment in November, ITV's director of programmes, David Liddiment, said: "Steve Anderson has the track record and the flair to lead ITV's current affairs offensive. He has a strong feel for popular television and understands where the heart of ITV's audience is."

Having been raised in Kirkby, a sprawling post-war council estate which is now one of the most depressed, de-industrialised parts of Liverpool, the Anderson brothers (Steve is now 39, and Jeff is 35) have both kept in touch with ITV's core audience. Their father, a former pipe-fitter, still lives on Merseyside.

Steve Boulton, who "stepped down" from the editorship of World in Action after 15 years on the programme, to make way for Jeff Anderson, is also a Scouser. He did his journalistic apprenticeship alongside Steve Anderson on the St Helen's Reporter in Lancashire.

Whether he still counts the Andersons among his mates after last week's shake-up at Granada, cannot be established. Boulton - who is said by colleagues to be "deeply unhappy" about being ousted - was not available for comment.

While being careful not to dance on his former colleague's grave, Jeff Anderson has signalled that he is planning to take the programme in a new direction.

"World in Action has earned a formidable reputation over the years," he comments, "but, like any successful programme, it cannot afford to stand still. My job is to widen its appeal while keeping its values intact."

There is no doubt that ITV's flagship current affairs show is going to be much more ratings-driven than it has been in recent times. Steve Anderson again: "There certainly has to be a lot of fresh thinking about how we re-adapt the programme and make it really contribute a hell of a lot more to the ITV schedule."

He believes that ITV schedulers committed a major error when they re- scheduled the show against EastEnders and effectively relieved its producers of the burden of pulling in as many viewers as possible. "Once a programme in a prime-time slot stops worrying about ratings, it doesn't do it any favours," he observes. "Ratings are important. If you're choosing to work for a mass channel like ITV or BBC1, you've got to carry huge swaths of the population with you every night."

The audience for World in Action tends to fluctuate wildly between 4 and 7 million, depending on what subject it tackles. Rising much above that range will always be hard, so long as it is up against EastEnders in its present Monday peak-time slot.

Liddiment may well decide to shift it. If he does, he probably won't meet many fierce objections from his current affairs chief.

"I'm not sure it's the wisest use of our current affairs slots to put them up against EastEnders," says Anderson. "We're always going to get beat, but we don't need to get beat 10-nil."

He has already demonstrated that he can raise the ratings of factual programmes. Watchdog started off with a 21 per cent share of the total audience (5.4 million viewers) against Coronation Street, and steadily built up to a 25 per cent share, representing an audience of 6.6 million. It was then given a better slot against the much less popular Emmerdale, where it pulled in more than 8 million viewers.

"We did this not by dumbing down but by smartening up," says Anderson. "To pull in ABC1 viewers - those with the loosest affiliation to soaps - we stopped chasing second-hand double-glazing salesmen down back streets in Peterborough and started hitting much bigger high-street names, such as Dixons, Ford and BT."

The fact that Steve Anderson previously edited BBC consumer programmes, such as Watchdog and its spin-offs, has prompted speculation that World in Action is set to become much more "consumery". As it happens, he does think that the best thing done by that documentary strand in recent times was the two-part investigation into rogue housing repair firms, captured on secret spy cameras.

"I'm actually committed to World in Action doing investigative journalism," he says. "I also want to see it becoming much more topical and revealing. It must tell us something new about something that matters."

Relating to real people will also be the guiding philosophy next week, when ITV offers alternative live coverage of the Budget for the first time in five years. Personal finance experts and consumer affairs correspondents will present an instant analysis of the effects of the Chancellor's statement on ordinary folk, who will give their "vox pop" reactions to outside broadcast units in the gritty northern city of Sheffield, as well as at a motorway service station and a pub. Indeed, the only politician on the programme will be Gordon Brown.

"We're determined to do the Budget in a totally different way from the Beeb, whose coverage will be dominated as usual by lots of politicians and men in braces in dealing-rooms," says Anderson. "The BBC's news and current affairs is cold. They're still too lofty. Too much of their journalism looks as though it's coming down from the Himalayan peaks."

Steve Anderson speaks from experience about the Beeb. Before editing Watchdog, he worked on most of the corporation's top news and current affairs strands, including Breakfast Time, Newsnight, Panorama and Here and Now.

His remit at ITV Network Centre covers not just current affairs, but also news. These have traditionally operated as totally separate fiefdoms, but Anderson is determined to bring the two strands together. He is perfectly positioned to do so, since his office is situated in the same Grays Inn Road block as ITN.

A few weeks ago, Anderson made a point of dropping into its newsroom and addressing the staff.

"It was the first time anyone from the Network Centre had gone to them to outline the reasons why we are thinking of moving News at Ten to an earlier slot," he says. "I basically told them they were great, and that, whatever happens to News at Ten, ITV expects them to go on providing the best news programme on British television. That's why we've given them another five-year contract, worth pounds 50m."

Anderson is prepared to pay ITN even more for helping to make a success of the British version of 60 Minutes, which he is planning to launch. Five different outfits are bidding for that contract, and whoever wins it will be obliged to work with ITV's sole news supplier. Together they will work out what shape this show will take, and how much it will emulate its American progenitor.

The man leading the current affairs offensive on Britain's largest commercial channel is clearly enthusiastic about its potential to become ITV's new current affairs flagship. Indeed, pondering aloud, Steve Anderson poses the question: "Will it co-exist with World in Action, or will it be there instead of World in Action?"

You start to see what he means when he says that his younger brother can expect no special favours.

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