The recipe for success

Hell's Kitchen may have been panned, but it's still leading ITV's drive to extend the range of its programming. Ciar Byrne reports

Gordon Ramsay and Nigel Pickard have a lot in common. ITV's director of programmes may be behind the camera rather than in front of it, but he is under immense pressure to get the mix of flavours just right. Throw in the wrong ingredients, and a television show will flop like an overcooked soufflé.

Gordon Ramsay and Nigel Pickard have a lot in common. ITV's director of programmes may be behind the camera rather than in front of it, but he is under immense pressure to get the mix of flavours just right. Throw in the wrong ingredients, and a television show will flop like an overcooked soufflé.

Hell's Kitchen was planned as the pièce de résistance of ITV's summer season, a two-week event show in the vein of the hugely popular I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here. But the jury's still out on whether it is a success or not.

Viewers were enthusiastic at first, with ratings for Ramsay's show peaking at 8.3 million viewers before falling back to a little more than five million. The critics have been less than kind: "So far, the programme has been a TV producer's dream - that is, a complete, absurd disaster," said Terence Blacker of The Independent.

So what does the man who commissioned Hell's Kitchen make of the show everyone's talking about, albeit not always very kindly? "It's got drama, emotion, humour, action - all the elements you would expect to see in a reality-TV event show," says Pickard. "Like I'm a Celebrity..., it combines many elements that create real pace and constant interest for the viewer."

He isn't troubled by the swing in viewing figures, pointing out that I'm a Celebrity... followed a similar pattern in its first series before attracting 14 million viewers to the final of the third series. "These nightly event shows always see quite large fluctuations in ratings. Overall, we're really pleased with reaction to the show." Ramsay, too, gets the thumbs-up. "As a television presenter he's just tremendously watchable. He's a great mixture of warmth, passion and total commitment to his craft."

Hit or miss, whatever the final verdict on Hell's Kitchen, Pickard is keen not to put all of ITV's eggs into the reality-TV basket. "Although reality is still alive and well and doing extremely strongly, I think you've always got to be prepared that these bubbles will burst.

"Too many of the shows are a bit derivative. You're looking for programmes to be distinctive. That's the challenge for broadcasters: how do we extend the range of what we do and not just rely on one genre, like reality shows?"

So where does the future lie for ITV? Pickard has set his sights on a field where rivals BBC2 and Channel 4 are excelling with shows such as Wife Swap and Jamie's Kitchen - popular factual programming. Later this year, ITV is making a major foray into this genre with Press Ganged, a show that takes a group of people and puts them aboard an 18th-century ship to see how they cope.

"We're literally press-ganging a bunch of people, and they're going to sail on an old clipper," Pickard says. "It's a mixture of living history, entertainment and drama - in the sense that they're up against it, they are really going to sail this ship. It's an area that's quite new for us, and it expands the sort of programming we do."

Pickard returned to ITV as director of programmes last year after a two-year stint as head of children's television at the BBC. He was a surprise appointment, and doubters questioned whether career achievements that included reviving Basil Brush and (as head of children's programmes at ITV) overseeing the rise of Ant and Dec qualified him for the post.

He answered his critics last month by poaching Michael Parkinson from the BBC. The chat-show legend agreed to switch channels after the BBC relegated his Saturday night programme in favour of The Premiership, itself snatched from ITV.

Television chefs, Parky, more factual programming - is Pickard taking ITV upmarket? "I don't think there's a complete shift upmarket, I think there's a shift of balance," he says. "ITV is not just about mass. It is about the profile of our audience. Upmarket is a valuable audience. What we can't do is skew so much into a particular demographic that we affect our overall share of viewers. You're walking a tightrope the whole time."

As he sweats over tonight's meals in Hell's Kitchen, Gordon Ramsay would no doubt agree.

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