Can Tarrant’s talent save the day for ITV?

As ITV stares into the abyss and Michael Grade prepares to make savage cuts, all eyes are on the new game show ‘The Colour of Money’, says Duncan Gray

It may be a curious thing to say about a relatively modest £200,000-an-hour game show, but ITV’s The Colour Of Money, hosted by Chris Tarrant, might well be the broadcaster’s most important commission of the decade. Why? If it’s a hit, ITV may for once own a piece of truly global content. And the revenues it would derive from owning, producing and licensing an internationally successful The Colour Of Money might well be the deus ex machina that ITV executive chairman Michael Grade has been praying for moves towards 4 March and the announcement of ITV’s annual results and reported savage staffing and programming cuts.

It’s only 10 years since Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, another low-cost Tarrant-fronted game show, exploded on to ITV’s air and caused a feeding frenzy among the world’s broadcasters. It’s hard to imagine ITV could be on the brink of bankruptcy.

Back then, ITV was a 60 per cent margin business for its three main shareholders Granada, United News & Media and Carlton. The network’s Director Of Programmes David Liddiment, with the help of entertainment controller Claudia Rosencrantz, had turned round a decline in audience and increased ITV’s peak time share from 37 per cent to 38 per cent, (ITV’s peak time audience share is now in the low 20’s).

The impact of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? on ITV’s schedule prompted waves of new high-impact, albeit expensive, entertainment commissions – Popstars, Pop Idol, The X Factor, I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!, Hell’s Kitchen and more recently Dancing On Ice and Britain’s Got Talent.

Since the days of Millionaire, the value of ITV has collapsed. The only revenue these hit shows created for the network’s owners back then was the rates they could charge their advertisers – and possibly a little income from phone voting. The producers cashed in on selling their formats and ITV, which had provided the shop window for these hits, missed out.

Paul Smith sold Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? to the Dutch Production house Two Way Traffic for £106m in 2007. Crucially, Smith’s production company Celador had enjoyed eight years of profits from the global production and licensing of the show that dwarfed what he scooped from the sale.

Even when Granada merged with Carlton in 2002 such was the institutionalised disregard for the value of content at boardroom level that ITV still unbelievably did not change their over generous terms of trade with its show suppliers, allowing producers like Smith to retain complete copyright control and exploit content internationally. By the time ITV started to change its terms of trade in 2006 the new PACT agreement between producers and broadcast networks had redrawn the battle lines and given producers much more advantageous terms over their network distributors.

ITV’s senior management allowed ancient internal rivalries in the newly merged company’s highly factionalised structure to hinder profitability. For example in 2006 the department charged with the domestic exploitation of Dancing On Ice refused to give a guarantee of more than £100,000 to Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean to acquire the rights to promote and produce the Dancing On Ice Arena Tour that follows every series and is consistently sold out. The entrepreneurial Phil McIntyre, one of the biggest entertainment promoters in the land, offered a much bigger guarantee and secured control of an enterprise that even conservative estimates put at £12m in ticket sales – a tiny fraction of which goes back to ITV.

When Dawn Airey arrived at ITV in 2007 as Managing Director of Global Content nobody seemed to be concentrating on developing the next Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? So she bought David Young’s 12 Yard Productions for £32m. Previously at the BBC, Young had devised and produced The Weakest Link. Too much money, said the industry. But what Young and his 12 Yard Productions do well is imagine and produce the sort of relatively low-cost, high-value game shows that sell the world over.

Such shows make lots of money for their owners. Fremantle’s Family Fortunes is on air in 47 broadcast markets and has existed for 32 years. Deals are structured from these types of shows so that the format owner earns about 10 per cent of the show’s price from the broadcaster in intellectual property fees. By retaining copyright control the company also takes the lion’s share of ancillary revenue such as premium rate telephony and merchandising.

What’s more, low cost game shows such as The Colour Of Money, once established in a schedule rarely get cancelled. Millionaire might be past its 10-million audience pomp but at £180,000 an episode it still makes money for ITV from its advertising revenue programmed against BBC1’s Casualty on a Tuesday night.

With that in mind, ITV had bought David Young’s production company and its show The Colour of Money was given an internal fast track to air. It was first pitched around October 2007 and my memory of it in my last days at ITV in its development stage was that the show was a mixture of The Bong Game (Chris Tarrant’s successful Capital Radio breakfast strand) and Deal or No Deal. Not a hugely original format but then a lot of ITV’s recent hits have been similarly clever twists. I’m A Celebrity is a take on C4’s Big Brother, while Dancing On Ice was a higher thrills higher concept riposte to the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing.

The importance to ITV of this programme is evident from the scheduling. To Harry Hill’s disgust, his show was shunted to 6.10pm on Saturday so The Colour Of Money could debut in the safe broadcast hammock between Hill’s TV Burp and Saturday Night Takeaway.

Given its level of on-air promotion and featherbed scheduling, if today’s viewing figures are anything less than five million there will be some grim faces in Gray’s Inn Road this morning. But if The Colour Of Money brings in a rating of five million or more and follows that with growth next week then Michael Grade might just be able to look at his shareholders and declare that his content-led revival is showing signs of working.

So no pressure then, Chris.

Duncan Gray is a former Controller of Entertainment, ITV