Ian Burrell: Royal wedding the crowning glory as Fincham inspires revival at ITV

Happy times for Peter Fincham. ITV, for which he is in charge of programming, is enjoying its best start to a year for more than two decades. The Queen has been on the television screens all week and looking in fine fettle and Fincham’s team has recently broadcast the marriage of her grandson to much critical acclaim.

Crowngate now seems like a footnote in royal history – “That feels like a lifetime ago,” is how he puts it. The bungled presentation of raw footage of a grumpy Her Majesty and the false suggestion she had stormed out of a photo shoot with Annie Leibowitz led toFincham’s departure from the BBC in 2007 but made it possible for him to occupy a unique position in British television. Having run BBC1, he now runs ITV1. “I think I’m actually the only person who has ever run both of those big channels,” he says.

No one in television thought the BBCwas better off for losing Fincham. Within four months, he had been unveiled as director of television at ITV. He joined at a time when Britain’s biggest commercial broadcasterwas watching its audience figures fall off the bottom of the graph. Within months the business was being rocked by a collapse in advertising revenue that had many questioning whether it had any viable future.

How those fortunes have changed. In March, ITV announced a £286m profit for 2010, up a staggering 213 per cent on the pitiful £25m return in 2009. The 16 per cent upturn in advertising was partly down to economic factors beyond the control of ITV– but it was also driven by a schedule revitalised by Fincham. In the early months of this year, ITV is beating its rivals. “We are significantly the best performing channel this year, we are up 3% [in audience], which is unusual to put it mildly for a mainstream channel and our best start to a year since 1990,” he says.

Fincham, 54, is talking from the 21st floor of London Television Centre, where he has gathered his senior team, ITV’s nearest equivalent of the BBC’s sixth floor for channel controllers across town in White City.

Having commissioned the standout television production of 2010 in Downton Abbey,Fincham has enjoyed a succession of drama hits this year, with Brenda Blethyn playing an obsessive murder detective in Vera,Paddy Considine starring in TheSuspicions of Mr Whicher and Olivia Williams appearing in Case Sensitive. JamesPurefoy has been cast as a barrister in the upcoming series Injustice. “We have been casting our drama in a particularly interesting way with a lot of actors who are fundamentally seen as film actors,” says Fincham.

Having waved goodbye to TheSouth Bank Show (allowing Sky Arts to give a new home to an ITV institution), Fincham has launched Perspectives, a new series in which leading figures from the arts talk about their passions, with hour-long programmes from Ian McKellen on Lowry and Andrew LloydWebber on the Pre-Raphaelites. Later this year he will introduce a new investigative documentary series, Exposure,which will mark ITV’s return to that genre 13 years after the end of the lauded Worldin Action.

On top of that, Fincham has the entertainment blockbusters TheX Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, both ofwhich are currently beset by rumours concerning the future involvement of Simon Cowell, prompting suggestions ITV might lose its golden goose. He denies the absence of Cowell from the judging panel on Britain’s Got Talent has prompted a tail-off in ratings. “It’s actually doing very well indeed and we really like the new line up of Michael McIntyre, Amanda Holden and David Hasselhoff. Simon is coming back for the semi final and final, and that’s great.”

He has known “for months and months” that Cowell will not be appearing as a judge on this year’s X Factor because of his commitments to the launch of XFactor USA. Cowell’s absence, he says, “puts to the first test: ‘Is this a great format in its own right and are there great people who can play those roles?’”

But is it not difficult for a director of television to be so dependent on one extremely powerful figure? “Hang on aminute, I ran Talkback Thames and was in the meeting when TheXFactor was pitched,” he says, referring to his time running the independent production company which makes both reality shows in partnership with Cowell’s firm Syco. “It’s not a question of being dependent. It’s like saying: ‘How dependent is Warner Brothers on the Harry Potter franchise?’”

He finishes the conversation by talking of his pride in ITV’s coverage of the royal wedding, an integral part of ITV1’s broad output. Although, as Fincham accepts, the BBC is the nation’s default position for such events, ITV cut the five-to-one beating it took in last year’s World Cup ratings down to a ratio of three to one. “I will be honest, there was no commercial return on [the broadcast] and there was no obligation to do it for regulatory reasons,” he says. “But we are a national broadcaster and we wanted to cover it properly and we did.” Mr Fincham may yet get an invitation to the Palace.

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