TV chief flexes all the right muscles for ITV2

It's now the UK's most popular non-terrestrial channel – and it's closing in on Five. Amol Rajan finds out how its controller does it

At a time when ITV's share price is plummeting to all-time lows, there remains at least one slice of the broadcaster's pie which ensures Michael Grade, its ebullient executive chairman, retains his appetite for the job.

ITV2, under the control of the youthful and energetic Zai Bennett, is setting new benchmarks for digital channels in Britain. The channel, which took over from Sky One as the UK's most popular non-terrestrial channel in 2005, has consolidated growth over the past year to such an extent that it is now challenging channel Five for the label of fifth-biggest channel in Britain. Given 13 per cent of UK households still do not have multi-channel television, that represents astonishing success.

It comes as a result of intelligent branding aimed at an audience of 16- to 34-year-olds. ITV2 has tried to supplement ITV1 rather than supplant it. A combination of comedies, soap repeats, imported American hits, celebrity tittle-tattle and follow- ups to ITV1 shows (in the manner of The Xtra Factor, and Footballer's Wives: Extra Time) have established a clear message, plugged repeatedly on ITV1: "If you liked that (ITV1), you'll love this (ITV2)".

Bennett has become one of British television's most sought-after young executives in the process. Eleven years ago he was making tea in the offices of Five, at the time of the terrestrial broadcaster's launch. After a brief stint at Carlton TV he moved to ITV, where he has been for the past nine years – the last two years as controller of ITV2.

His formula is relatively simple. "We know our market and where it fits into the wider project that ITV is trying to carry off," he says. "Our role is to appeal to young people of both sexes, and to earn their loyalty by showing that we're listening to what they want. For that reason I'd say that we're trying to reflect popular culture rather than shape it."

The ratings seem to bear this out. Stalwarts of the ITV2 schedule such as American Idol consistently pull in a very respectable half-a-million viewers. Many others including Ghost Hunting – in which celebrities are invited to investigate haunted houses – attract double that.

But some go further still. Billie Piper's Secret Diary of a Call Girl, a relatively rare example of the channel's original programming that has since been commissioned again, attracted 1.8 million viewers on its launch in September 2007, making it the top-rated multi-channel programme, aside from sport, throughout last year.

Since then, the launch of US import Bionic Woman, starring former EastEnders star Michelle Ryan, attracted 2.2 million viewers, about the number who regularly watch Channel 4's far more expensive import Desperate Housewives.

Such ratings have made Bennett's channel the envy of the industry. He tends to use buzzwords when explaining his tactical approach and the role it plays within ITV's wider strategy. The "digital family" at ITV, he says, promotes a "collegiate" atmosphere; scheduling is based around the principles of "congruity" and "complementarity"; and his explicit intention is to remain a "mass market" rather than "niche" channel.

What that means in practice is that ITV2 takes the best of ITV1, tailors it to a younger audience, and occasionally sprinkles its own distinctive flavour on top. It's noticeable that much of that flavour emanates from shows with a female bias. From Piper's programme to the second series of Katy Brand's Big Ass Show, it seems that ITV2 might be targeting young women.

Yet Bennett resists such a claim. "It's true that 60 per cent of our viewers are female, but we don't set out to be a gender-oriented channel," he says. "There's not much commercial logic in disenfranchising half our potential audience."

He says he wants to ensure ITV2 showcases "loads of original programming". "There are dangers with original programming but if you back the right horse, as we did with Billie Piper's show, it can be very rewarding. As a controller what that requires is patience. It takes time for people at home to grow accustomed to particular programmes, and building up loyalty with them is a long process. This is especially true of comedy, which we take very seriously indeed. Successful comedy shows take time to bed down. You have to be brave with comedy, as well as patient. Viewers are risk-averse, and often sceptical about new shows but in time word of mouth will spread and reputations get enhanced."

Relying on US imports – "which don't come cheap at all" – has helped ITV2 to cut channel Five's ratings lead sharply. The latter's best-rated programme, CSI, pulls in an audience of three million, not far ahead of the figures achieved by Bennett's biggest hits.

Given ITV2's relative youth, and the fact that many households in Britain are still not familiar with the workings of digital television, the threat that it poses to channel Five promises to be one of the media stories of the next 12 months.

As part of its commitment to young people, and in order to help them get involved in television both behind and in front of the camera, ITV2 is sponsoring "The Network" scheme at this year's Edinburgh International Television Festival. Formerly known as Television and Young People (TVYP), the scheme offers enthusiastic youngsters the chance to meet and work with established industry insiders. "We want, in time, to become known as the channel that is more committed than any other to the tastes and passions of Britain's young people," Bennett says.

Having won "Non-terrestrial Channel of the Year" at last year's festival, and being a favourite for the same accolade this year, the scale of Bennett's ambition knows no bounds.

Zai Bennett is a supporter of The Network. To find out more, visit www.mgeitf.co.uk/thenetwork

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