Richie richer

The experience may be rather similar but the programme is significantly different. It has had surgery by focus group, painful maybe, but somewhat kinder than oblivion.

T urn on ITV this Saturday night and you might experience deja vu. For everyone's favourite ex-Butlins red coat, Shane Richie, is inviting engaged couples to compete on air to win a wedding. Sound familiar? It is. Welcome back The Shane Richie Experience in a new guise - the revamped and renamed Love Me Do.

If you think you'll have a problem distinguishing between the two, be warned: the difference between naff and slightly less naff is greater than you might think. It's the difference between art and science - one was simply an idea, the other was the product of a focus group.

The "if at first you don't succeed..." school of programme-making isn't one you might associate with the cut-throat world of Nineties TV. But it is fast gaining currency as, increasingly, broadcasters must guarantee a return on their investments. And because viewers are less and less tolerant of mistakes.

"It's on the increase because of the amounts of money now involved," Shane Richie Experience/Love Me Do executive producer Jane Mcnaught explains. "When you're putting pounds 1m into a new series, you have to make sure you minimise the risk - and that means testing and tweaking, where necessary."

With The Shane Richie Experience, alarm bells started ringing early on. No sooner had the series launched than it provoked a critical drubbing - "tacky" and "tasteless" were among the more polite complaints. While the critics loathed it, however, it did attract a modest audience of 6.1 million. Trouble was, negative media coverage threatened to strangle it at birth.

At the end of the series, ITV researched the show and decided it was worth paying for surgery. So Granada commissioned "focus groups" - rounding up members of the public to quiz on every element over biscuits and coffee. Their responses dictated the evolution of the show into Love Me Do, Mcnaught says. The verdict? The chance to win an instant wedding was deemed tasteless. And viewers disliked anything that trivialised the perceived solemnity of the marriage ceremony. Richie, however, was well- liked - which was just as well as Granada had him on an expensive contract.

Audience research was critical in honing the show's re-positioning, says Mcnaught. Elements the focus groups disliked - such as the Elvis- lookalike choir - were ditched. "You want a format you know has at least a reasonable chance of success," she says, "because of the costs involved."

It was not always so. ITV has traditionally been driven by advertisers' demands for instant results. Its timidity was typified by the decision to discard the first series of Men Behaving Badly. The show was eagerly picked up and nurtured by BBC1 into a major ratings success.

The BBC has a better track record in honing shows before discarding them. One Foot in the Grave and Bread are just two series which performed poorly early on but which, after tweaks and schedule changes, became ratings stalwarts.

A problem all TV companies now face, however, is the decline of "safe" slots which once allowed them to nurture new programming, says Angela Harbutt, director of programme consultants Paradigm, which regularly conducts audience research for broadcasters.

"ITV used to have a relatively `safe' slot to launch drama on Monday nights - when BBC1 ran news followed by Panorama," she explains. Beneficiaries included Cracker and Soldier Soldier.

"But these are getting fewer. The BBC recently announced it was moving more popularist programming to 9.30pm - in order to close down the ITV drama test ground."

All broadcasters are now testing and tweaking far more shows, insiders claim. "Focus groups have become the norm. And many more one-offs and `specials' are being used to test viewer response before committing to a series," says one.

A fine line separates a critical patient from a lost cause. Deciding whether a programme is worth salvaging is where the commissioner's instincts come in, says Stuart Cosgrove, Channel 4's controller of arts and entertainment. Both The Girlie Show and Wanted were faulted in their first series, he admits, although claims each had enough that worked to deserve a second chance. Subsequent changes were directed by focus group research.

Cosgrove says Channel 4 is happy with the viewer response to the new versions. Whether Granada will find it has thrown the baby out with the bath water, however, will only become apparent in the coming weeksn

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