A queen of quality TV: Dianne Nelmes, a power behind Granada's throne, says high standards must go hand in hand with high ratings. Martin Wroe reports

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The Independent Online
DIANNE NELMES stepped off a jobs roundabout last week that in 12 months has taken her from programmes such as The Krypton Factor and Busman's Holiday to one of the most important posts in the whole of independent television.

The Independent headlined an article on her promotion: 'Woman takes high-profile Granada programme post'. She commented: 'It would be unthinkable to see a headline reading, 'Man takes high-profile job'. But it doesn't bother me.'

Less than a year ago Ms Nelmes was executive producer of entertainment at Granada TV. She left to become director of news and current affairs at Meridian TV in Southampton, which takes over the TVS franchise in less than three weeks.

In July she moved back to Manchester ('I didn't fit') to edit World in Action, ITV's most prestigious current affairs programme. Then, last Wednesday, she was put in charge of all Granada's factual programmes - from current affairs to documentary drama, arts, religion and sport - as three departments were merged. She is, indisputably, one of the most powerful women in television.

Life is a little fraught at Granada this weekend, as 250 employees are dreading a redundancy notice among the Christmas cards. It remains unclear what Ray Fitzwalter - head of current affairs - will do next.

Ms Nelmes has not been given a title yet, and is still adjusting to her elevation. She has to race out of the room to move her car, which is blocking someone else's. Top men in television, with several hundred staff at their beck and call, do not move their own car.

If there are still few women calling the shots in British television, Dianne Nelmes - married to Ian McBride, who is a World in Action producer and now effectively on his wife's staff - is in a still more elite group: people running news and current affairs with a background in popular entertainment.

During her four years in light entertainment she successfully launched This Morning and set loose Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan on an unsuspecting public. The experience has given her 'breadth' but will not inform her approach to Granada's factual programme. She was already thoroughly grounded in 'serious journalism', having worked for BBC's Look North as a reporter, as a researcher on World In Action and as a producer of the BBC's Brass Tacks series.

'I had just as many sleepless nights launching You've Been Framed as any serious programme, but you are after the same thing in both areas - quality and audiences.'

Most news and current affairs editors would not be seen dead with framed covers of Woman's Own (featuring Richard and Judy) on their office wall.

In the new ITV launched on 1 January, however, Ms Nelmes will need her mixture of talents. Critics of the Government's auction of ITV franchises argue that the third channel will be advertiser-led, obsessed with the ratings needed to generate the advertising revenue to pay the bids to the Treasury which won them their franchises. Serious current affairs will be first up against the wall, they say.

Ms Nelmes is decidedly upbeat, adamant that factual programming is not about to be taken over by American-style 'info-tainment' or transformed into 'tabloid television'.

Not that she has anything against the genre - she launched Granada's successful True Crimes reconstruction series with Edward Woodward. But she points out that in five months at World In Action, three programmes - on David Sullivan, amphetamines and police corruption - won audiences of more than 9.5 million, five others more than 8.5 million.

Ms Nelmes adds that World in Action is already justifying its prime-time slot on the ITV network on Monday evenings. The slot is guaranteed by the new network director, Marcus Plantin, for only six months.

'I cannot expect ITV to give me that prime time and say 'don't worry too much if you're only pulling four million viewers',' Ms Nelmes said. 'It's my duty to repay the schedule by delivering respectable audiences.'

In the brave new world of ITV, she promises factual programming which is serious yet popular. 'I won't need to go downmarket to do that,' she insists.

'I would never want to see World in Action go down that factual entertainment route. If we did, I would expect to be taken off. But we've always been populist - 30 years ago we were looking at valium, abortion, bronchitis.'

The paper where she first worked - the Evening Echo in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire - closed in the 1970s. It is evidence to Dianne Nelmes that journalism must live in the real world of ratings or perish.

(Photograph omitted)

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