On The Box: Channel Hopping

Michael Grade left the BBC because he wants to get back to making programmes. But with all the rubbish on, how hard can it actually be?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

How hard can it be? Everyone wonders, sooner or later, when they slump down in front of the television. Big Brother? A bunch of people being watched all the time. I'm a Celebrity? Same thing with snakes. Not to mention your actual jungle wildlife. Surely you don't have to be a genius to come up with this stuff. Yet the people who do - who make or commission the shows we all keep on watching - are feted within their industry. And none more so than Michael Grade, the new saviour of ITV.

When the director-general of the BBC made a spectacular defection to its commercial rival last week he said he couldn't resist the chance to return to making television. His salary has soared from £140,000 at the Beeb to a base rate of £825,000 at ITV (plus add-ons worth up to £2m a year), but Mr Grade didn't say: "I just want to buy more expensive cigars." The 63-year-old told colleagues he had decided to take this "last real job" in order to "get back into programming".

Why? For most viewers television is a mysterious and closed world. So what are the differences between ITV and the BBC? And if you really did have a great idea - let's say Mr Showbiz: The Michael Grade Story - what hope would you have of seeing it broadcast?

Not much, apparently. "The chances of someone who does not know the industry really well getting something made are zero, frankly," says Daisy Goodwin, one of those "brilliant creatives" Mr Grade said he missed talking to every day at the BBC. She has been executive producer on a schedule-full of hit shows including The Apprentice, How Clean Is Your House? and Property Ladder. "You might be brilliant, but you've got to have experience and be working with great people who are known and trusted to deliver."

Formerly with the hugely successful production company Talkback, Ms Goodwin is now "head girl" of her own independent Silver River, whose latest hit series is Pulling on BBC3. Its offices are in a drab block just off Tottenham Court Road in London, but inside the walls are painted with blocks of shocking pink and decorated with movie posters such as Breakfast at Tiffany's. A whiteboard is scrawled with "Big Stories" of the day including "Water", "Power", "Food" and "Light". The fashionable young things who work here talk about the zeitgeist a lot.

Good ideas can come from anywhere, says Ms Goodwin: after reading a Raymond Carver story about people who had to sell their possessions on their front lawn, she came up with Life Laundry, a lifestyle show that forced people to confront and clear all the clutter they had accumulated. But ideas are not enough. "Most TV has been done before. It's about execution and delivery: the spin, the editing, the presentation. The other part of the trick is knowing who might want it."

Pitching to the BBC is complicated, because it has so many channels and slots to fill. Programmes are divided into four "super-genres": Knowledge, Fiction, Entertainment and Children. So into which of these does a docu-drama like Mr Showbiz fit? Maybe Fiction, whose head is Jane Tranter, the woman behind Bleak House and Life on Mars. But wait, Fiction is divided up into sub-genres. Maybe it's Drama we want, led by Julie Gardiner, who runs Doctor Who. Or maybe not.

The first approach should be by email. The BBC gets 10,000 of these a year. Krishan Arora, an executive who works with independent producers, says this is "a very democratic process: your email will go in the same inbox as all the others and be read. If you have a killer idea we want to make it". People with no experience at all might get a break with a BBC Talent competition, but opportunities are very limited.

An invite to Television Centre used to mean an informal chat, but now people go in with storyboards, DVDs and more. This can backfire: one keen pitcher dressed as a bride with a spectacular entourage including a groom in morning dress. Unfortunately, the person she was trying to impress had only just commissioned a wedding show and could not do another. The whole thing was an excruciatingly embarrassing waste of time.

At the end of the pitch - in a small meeting room or, worse, in an open-plan office - the answer will probably be "maybe". Even if the BBC likes your idea it can take months to go through the paperwork. "Once it took them six months just to work out which genre our show was and who should be paying for it," says one producer, who does not want to be named because he is still pitching to the BBC. "You do despair."

Michael Grade left all that behind for an outfit boasting "probably the least complicated of all commissioning systems", according to Alison Sharman, director of factual and daytime programmes at ITV. She also prefers email first - but then it could be just you and her in a room. She will be blamed if the show is a flop and hundreds of thousands of pounds are wasted, but still prefers to trust instinct and experience to make quick decisions.

"The best factual programmes are about tapping into the mood of the nation, which changes quickly, so you will probably get a simple yes or no," says Ms Sharman. "We can move fast: a documentary on the Mills-McCartney break-up was on air within two weeks of being commissioned."

If a broadcaster likes Mr Showbiz, you might get £10,000 to make a 10-minute taster. How about Vic Reeves as the cigar-chomping young broadcaster? Can you afford him? Perhaps, if you get the money to make a proper first episode as a pilot. The budget for a half-hour show going out midweek could be be £75,000. If the pilot works you will get the money for another five shows - £375,000 - and can hire staff for the six months they will take to make. You will need a series producer, a couple of directors and at least half a dozen others. Camera and sound crews are hired by the day.

"The biggest problem is not getting things commissioned," says Daisy Goodwin. "It's getting them made with the right, talented people."

If the channel is happy with the finished product it will be broadcast in prime time with a big ad push. If not it will be you paying for reshoots and new edits. Ultimately Mr Showbiz may be broadcast in the early hours with ITV Nightscreen and the Open University. But at least you will have got it made: so many producers sweat blood but don't even get this far.

If ratings are good then you can make a profit: selling to overseas broadcasters and as a DVD might bring in £100,000. A book deal could be worth half that again. And clever merchandising - anyone for a "Make the Grade" kit with glowing cigar end? - could bring in the same again. Well done. What's next?

"You can never rest on your laurels," says Ms Goodwin. "Nothing lasts for ever: Big Brother is invincible now, but it will dip one day. A company that doesn't have a constant stream of new ideas is in trouble."

Yeah but no but yeah, she would say that, wouldn't she? Television execs want to make it sound really complicated to keep us out, right? Not the smart ones. They're desperate for bright people, because TV eats up ideas and energy and time and money in huge quantities and is never, ever satisfied. Talking of which, is there nothing better on the other side?