From Brideshead Revisited to Cranford, Britain's sumptuous TV dramas are renowned around the world as examples of broadcasting brilliance. But their days could be numbered because they cannot match "the emotional drain" of reality shows and sport.
ITV, which celebrated its highest recent ratings when 14.6 million people tuned into last weekend's The X Factor final, last week announced it was axing a planned two-part adaptation of A Passage to India because it was too expensive.
With TV budgets shrinking, expensive dramas have become increasingly difficult to make, according to Michael Grade, the executive chairman of ITV.
"There is so much real-life drama in today's schedules – in sport, in reality shows like The X Factor – that it's getting harder and harder for us and the BBC to launch new drama," said Mr Grade, who has also served stints as the head of BBC1 and Channel 4.
"It is hard for scripted drama to match that emotional drain you get from these big events. Fictional storytelling is still what singles out British TV for its excellence, but dramas get harder and harder to launch."
His comments in the showbusiness bible Variety drew criticism from television actors and directors, however. Charles Sturridge, the screenwriter and director who made such TV classics as Brideshead Revisited, described what Mr Grade wrote as "a self-serving opinion from a company that's forgotten how to make drama".
"It's like saying you don't need theatre because you have football," said Mr Sturridge, who is also chairman of Directors UK, the TV and film directors body.
"What's different about drama is that you have to invest in talent such as actors and writers. With a talent competition you don't have to do the homework. Expense is not the key. The key to good drama is originality, storytelling, adventurism, reaching out to audiences – and that isn't being done. I think ITV has a very poor record for drama over the last decade, which didn't use to be the case."
Peter Bazalgette, a pioneer of reality TV with shows such as Big Brother and Ready Steady Cook, claimed that Mr Grade was engaging in a "bit of spin". He added: "It's true that non-fiction telly has adopted the 'narrative' approach, so you have strong human storylines.
"Drama is still superb and compelling. But it is far, far more expensive than factual TV. In this context Michael Grade is indulging in a bit of spin ... The truth is that ITV has to cut dramas because it cannot afford to sustain its current programme spend. My estimate would be that they will have cut up to 20 per cent of their programme budget by this time next year."
Last year, Doctor Who was one of the BBC's biggest sellers on DVD, shifting 1.9 million copies and helping the corporation to a £41.3m profit from DVD sales, with Cranford, Sense and Sensibility and Oliver all doing well.
Roger Lloyd Pack, who has starred in numerous TV dramas such as The History of Mr Polly and Vanity Fair, as well as comedies such as The Vicar of Dibley, said he was "shocked" by Mr Grade's comments.
"The drama of reality shows is spurious," he said. "It's the 10-second wait before the winner is announced. It's juvenile. There is a drama in sport, but no insight into how we live. It doesn't engage your intellect. That's what we mean by drama. Something that explores the life that we lead now. It's ludicrous. And he's in charge of ITV. I'm shocked."
An ITV spokesman said: "We remain committed to high-quality drama on ITV1 and in 2009 have the likes of Demons, Law & Order: UK, Wuthering Heights, Whitechapel and the return of Primeval coming to screen."Reuse content