The case for Carlton Television: Paul Jackson, managing director of Carlton Television, gives Rhys Williams his response to the stinging criticism of his company's performance by the Independent Television Commission

Rhys Williams
Sunday 29 May 1994 23:02

The Independent Television Commission's review of Carlton's first year of broadcasting to London was the kind of end of term report you would intercept, steam open and burn before your parents could get a look-in.

According to the ITC, Carlton's factual output in 1993 was 'not consistently distinguished, entertainment 'uneven, while drama was considered 'mixed and its contribution to network programming 'very disappointing. Overall, the new franchise holder performed 'well below expectations.

Dispensing with the customary polite 'could do better, the commission warned bluntly that it wished to see a 'significant improvement in 1994 and beyond.

The response from Paul Jackson, managing director of Carlton, has been commendably robust. The station, he says, has met the ITC's principal tasks of ensuring a smooth transition from the previous licence holder, and of sustaining ITV's 40-odd per cent market share across the region.

'Our tracking shows that 70 per cent of the London population are satisfied with Carlton, three-quarters are happy with the news coverage, 60 per cent say we're at least the equivalent of Thames, while nearly half believe we're a change for the better.

As far as feedback from advertisers is concerned, 'I'm not sure that there is a problem. The ITC are the regulators. We have read and digested what they have had to say and we will take on board their comments - we'd be foolish not to. But I am surprised to see them acting as television reviewers.

Under particularly fierce fire was the documentary series Hollywood Women, which at its peak pulled in 11.5m viewers. The commission credited it with achieving press notoriety only for its 'lurid superficiality and dismissed it as 'essentially glib.

Mr Jackson believes the ITC's rather ungenerous assessment was a little subjective. 'My view is that it was an interesting, innovative, new way into tackling a familiar story. It was popular with viewers and we're commissioning a follow-up, which, in television terms, means it was a success.

Carlton, of course, is getting used to flak. It has always represented something of a broadcast bogeyman ever since its hefty pounds 43m bid displaced Thames from the London weekday franchise, the most prized on the ITV network. More than 1,000 people lost their jobs as the old style producer/broadcaster became just another independent producer. Carlton chose not to recruit them.

Driven by the entrepreneur Michael Green, Carlton would instead become a model of efficiency, eschewing in-house production in favour of commissioning the best from independent programming.

At the Edinburgh International Television Festival last summer, the writer Dennis Potter attacked Carlton for being 'a predictable disappointment. (This was, incidentally, about the time that Potter labelled John Birt, director-general of the BBC, 'a croak-voiced Dalek in an Armani suit.)

Mr Jackson rejected Potter's critique of Carlton as the words of a 'very hurt man, out of sorts with the world he inhabits. However the writer's comments bear a curious resemblance to the ITC's general verdict on the programming as 'cautious and predictable.

When Mr Jackson was originally wheeled out as director of programming for the fledgling franchise holder, there was widespread industry concern that he might prove a lightweight. His record was illustrious, but based solely on comedy. He had masterminded such comedy triumphs as The Young Ones, Comic Strip, Girls on Top, Saturday Live and Red Dwarf. The lack of any journalistic experience provoked fears that news and current affairs would be sidelined.

In the event, the ITC's criticisms were across the board. And they are being taken seriously. Mr Jackson says there will be discussions with the producers of The Big Story, the current affairs series which returns in the autumn, over comments that it was 'variable in quality and failed to cover any 'significant foreign stories. (The series replaced the esteemed This Week made by Thames and which included the Death on the Rock programme.)

Mr Jackson emphasises that the ITC based its judgment on 1993 alone and that since the report had been drawn up, the sit-com The 10%ers and Class Act, a drama series starring Joanna Lumley, have gone some way to answering the criticisms. 'It may well be that a lot has already been done to address ITC concerns. The problem with television is that it takes time for results to reach the screen.

The ITC reserved its sternest censure for Carlton's contribution to network programming, which it described as 'very disappointing. It supplied 128 hours compared to the 521 hours it proposed in its original application, and the 143 hours its predecessor Thames managed as an independent producer of programmes such as The Bill.

Only two out of 13 drama submissions were accepted (including the widely praised Frank Stubbs Promotes). The ITC accepted that 'Carlton's application was written without detailed knowledge of the ITV network system or commissioning policy. It was not surprising that as a 'new entry with no track record many of its proposals were rejected by a network whose approach was very much 'safety first.

Mr Jackson believes the subtext of the ITC report has to be an evaluation of the publisher/broadcaster model that Carlton is pioneering. Its relatively modest network contribution needed to be set against its role in introducing independent production companies to ITV, notably Prospect with the award-winning Good Sex Guide.

'Half-a-dozen independent companies have arrived on ITV and are being recommissioned thanks to Carlton. They're all producing award-winning, popular shows which have come in for critical praise. I suppose only Brighton Belles was a turkey and if it's the sum total of our failures, then I can live with that for the next 12 months.

FACT PACK: Paul Jackson

Name: Paul Jackson

Born: 2 October, 1947

Background: Brought up in London. Studied English at Exeter University, where he was social secretary of the students' union.

So he knows a thing or two about pub crawls? Probably.

And then: After graduating with honours, spent two years in rep before joining the BBC. Serving apprenticeship as a floor manager on Basil Brush, he moved to The Two Ronnies where he met his second wife Judy (she was the make-up supervisor). Success as a producer/director on programmes such as The Young Ones, Three of a Kind, Girls on Top and Saturday Live, earned him the sobriquet 'Mr Light Entertainment.

Is that it? Not quite. As director of programmes, he was a member of Carlton's original licence application team, a role he combined with that of joint managing director of the independent production company, Noel Gay Television.

Wouldn't his parents have rather he'd got a 'real job? Almost certainly not. His father was T Lesley Jackson, a BBC producer whose credits include This is Your Life and What's My Line? (so Mr Light Entertainment Mk I then).

What admirers say:

''Highly intelligent and highly articulate (Jim Moir, head of BBC light entertainment). 'A good ass-kicker (Ruby Wax)

And critics? 'He's as old fashioned as Ben Elton's sparkly jacket (Anon)

(Photograph omitted)

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