Dominic Crossley-Holland On Broadcasting

Old ideas fill up Saturday nights. But is that such a mistake?

Monday 09 October 2006 00:00

'Predictable", "a complete lack of risk-taking", "a drought", "dumbing down" and "sad" are just a few of the comments, and that's the polite end of the spectrum. No, this is not people describing the last days of the Blair government, but critics and viewers talking about what's on TV.

It's true that this autumn all the best ideas seem to be old ideas. Helen Mirren will shortly offer her final, final reprise of DCI Tennison in the seventh series of Prime Suspect. A week ago it was Cracker's turn, with Robbie Coltrane's return to the role after a 10-year absence watched by a Fitz-sized eight million of us.

This weekend the broadcasting battle was well and truly rejoined with BBC and ITV getting back down to business as usual, wheeling out the signature dramas and entertainment shows and returning to slugging it out on Saturday and Sunday nights, albeit with some rather familiar titles in their armoury.

Saturday saw the arrival of the 13-part Robin Hood, which nearly never made it to our screens after the master tapes were stolen from the production office in Hungary. In his last incarnation in the 1980s series, Robin of Sherwood was played by Michael Praed as a New Romantic heart throb. This time, Jonas Armstrong and his merry men galloped into the 7pm slot recently occupied by another revival, Doctor Who, followed later by the first of the new series of Strictly Come Dancing, itself a remake of the cult Come Dancing, and now on its fourth series.

Over on ITV1, Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway - a throwback to the great Saturday live audience shows such as The Generation Game - was followed by The X Factor. Throw in Parkinson and you'd almost be forgiven for thinking you'd tuned into an episode of TV Heaven from yesteryear.

Predictably, there were the usual snorts of critical derision when the broadcasters unveiled their autumn schedules. The basic charge that there is bankruptcy of ideas across all channels has become highly fashionable. It is often coupled with the view that in re-making these programmes, broadcasters are somehow guilty of merely playing safe, not pushing the boundaries, and of copping out from any risk-taking or producing imaginative new formats. It's then usual to throw in the kitchen sink with some disparaging remarks about Celebrity Love Island or Davina's ill-fated chatshow because it all used to be so much better in those golden years of British television.

But to write these programmes off merely as revivals is short-sighted. In Cracker's case there was a compelling script from the original series writer, Jimmy McGovern, moody direction from Antonia Bird, as well as a great performance from Anthony Flanagan. Similarly the reinvention of Doctor Who had Russell T Davies scripts, fantastic production as well as introducing the likes of Billie Piper. In short, at their best these programmes discover and nurture talent, and champion values that in turn help revitalise other genres and all parts of the broadcast industry.

So all in all it's refreshing to see that now the programmes are actually upon us, their quality is being recognised by viewers in their droves. The audience figures also underline the truth of the matter; while "event" TV is a buzzword beloved of most TV executives because it describes the type of programmes that stand out against the welter of competition and grab viewers' attention, it is not the sole preserve of creativity. We place far too much premium on new formats rather than recognising the real originality that goes into revitalising (and in some cases rescuing) the more familiar staples in our broadcast diet.

What is not widely recognised is the huge creativity and innovation that goes into returning series and soaps; The X Factor, for example, remains one of the sharpest productions anywhere on British TV.

Nowhere is this more true than in the small group of shows that are disproportionately important to the overall health of their channels, the so-called "banker shows" that essentially define the success of a channel. Because while landmark dramas or documentaries help shape our perception of a channel's identity, success in terms of ratings is down to a surprisingly small group of programmes that appear with great frequency all year round. On ITV just four titles, Coronation Street, Emmerdale, The Bill and This Morning deliver 25 per cent of viewers. And vitally for the network's health they are responsible for delivering a huge share of the commercial audience, or what those in airtime sales call "commercial impacts", too. Commercial impacts are important because they underpin the formula used to calculate advertising rates, each impact being a person watching a 30-second advertisement. So on ITV1 just 10 titles deliver around 50 per cent of all the network's commercial impacts.

On Channel 4 the equivalent positions are held by Big Brother, Deal or No Deal and Countdown, and on Five it's CSI. Although not subject to the same commercial imperative, over at the BBC the same holds true of programmes such as EastEnders, Casualty and Holby City, which deliver all year round the kinds of audiences that help the BBC continue to justify mass appeal and funding by the licence fee.

While all the main channels have challenges of their own to confront, the truth of the matter is that if these titles are ailing, the whole network is affected. This is why we so often read about changes to cast and crew of soaps, because any signs of ill-health need to be corrected fast and the programmes must be continually refreshed. It's a testament to the huge creativity of the teams around these shows that most are so strong given that they've been around for decades. Emmerdale is a case in point. Given a makeover over the last few years, it is now riding high, with Patsy Kensit's exit watched by more than eight million. Along with Holby City and other medical dramas, Casualty has shown that it's far from in need of intensive care as it celebrates its 20th anniversary, with specials attracting big audiences.

So while there are real issues about the range of programmes, particularly in peak time, the picture of a moribund industry, failing to reinvent, is not an accurate one. Much as it flies in the face of conventional wisdom, the reality is that the increasingly unforgiving and competitive environment just doesn't allow it.

Dominic Crossley-Holland is a former controller of current affairs, arts and religion for ITV, and executive producer, BBC current affairs

Whoever thinks 'nothing good ever came out of America' can't have watched much TV

The prize for one of the more bizarre advertising campaigns of the year must go to Five US, a new channel planning to showcase what it boasts as "the best of the US".

The advert for Five US, which launches in Britain a week today, asks "Who says nothing good ever comes out of America". Answer: er... not many people actually.

It's particularly odd given we regularly beat ourselves up that we're not as bold as American TV, and given the dedicated followings for imports such as The West Wing, Lost and Five's very own CSI. Since this is a statement of the blindingly obvious this is clearly how Five's marketing team want us to react.

Still, it's a bit more sophisticated than Five's original approach, dubbed by their then director of programmes as "films, and football".

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