TV getting jaded and coarse, says ITC

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The Independent Online

Television "Top 10" lists, shows labelled ... from Hell and other jaded formats about the worst of human behaviour dominate commercial television schedules at the expense of serious programmes, the industry's regulator warned yesterday.

The Independent Television Commission said an increasingly fierce battle for viewers meant there was diminishing diversity of programming during peak times and "minority appeal" shows were disappearing from prime time.

In its annual report, the ITC said arts and current affairs programmes had been the main casualties of the ratings war waged by commercial stations. The number had plummeted by 40 per cent and 50 per cent in the past four years, with arts "disappearing from peak [time]". Channel 5, more usually associated with sex, films and football, was a rare exception in increasing arts coverage.

The report found there was a "preponderance of similar programme formats across channels, the tendency to exhaust generic series, whether Top 10s and other 'list' programmes or ... from Hells, and a reliance ­ whether overt or covert filming ­ on programmes observing and revealing coarse behaviour".

As examples of "format" programmes, the report cited Big Brother 2, Survivor and Soapstars. Sarah Thane, director of programmes and advertising for the ITC, said although such programmes were often 'terrific,' companies were tempted to run formats beyond their natural life because innovation was costly.

One exception was an upturn in religious programmes. "More diverse, engaging and confident" shows were reflecting "a recognition of religion's role in underpinning many of society's values", the report said.

The ITC said the year had been among the most challenging for commercial television since its inception, with severe financial pressures after a downturn in advertising. Revenue fell by £323m, or 7 per cent, in the year to September 2001. ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 spent £1.1bn on original programmes but many were commissioned before the financial crisis.

The General Election and 11 September put the spotlight on news and broadcasters produced more coverage than they had to under the terms of their licences. Amid all-round praise for commercial television's response to 11 September, the ITC singled out Sky for providing the most comprehensive coverage. But it raised concerns about news on ITV, which renewed its contract with ITN but at a substantially lower budget. "The ITC expects ITV to ensure this does not jeopardise the required quality of news output on the channel," it warned.

The ITC said ITV had suffered from "formulaic" coverage of the election. Then, the channel had smaller-than-usual audiences for News at Ten, with a 22 per cent share, compared with 24 per cent for the rest of the year. By contrast, Channel Four's audience held up well and Channel 5 found livelier ways to tackle the issues; it had the most peak-time election programmes thanks to political coverage in The Wright Stuff.

But ITV was praised for its drama, which "remained the strongest and most defining element of ITV" with a reinvigorated autumn schedule including "brave commissions" such as a modern Othello, and Bob and Rose, a romantic comedy about a gay man.

The ITC had more complaints about programmes and advertising than the year before, with Channel 4's Brass Eye paedophile satire attracting the most, 992 objections.

The departure of Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan from This Morning on ITV cut the show's average audience from 1.4 million to 1.2 million. Their Channel 4 show "failed to live up to expectations".