Peter Fincham: The only way is forward for TV survivor

Peter Fincham has overseen a remarkable recovery at ITV1, mirroring a rebound of his own. Ian Burrell reports

Monday 23 May 2011 00:00 BST

Happy times for Peter Fincham. ITV, for which he is in charge of programming, is enjoying its best start to a year for more than two decades. The Queen is on all the television screens and looking in fine fettle and Fincham’s team has recently broadcast the marriage of her grandson to much critical acclaim.

Crowngate now seems like a footnote in royal history - “That feels like a lifetime ago” is how he puts it. The bungled presentation of raw footage of a grumpy Her Majesty and the false suggestion that she had stormed out of a photo shoot with Annie Leibowitz led to Fincham’s departure from the BBC in 2007 but made it possible for him to occupy a unique position in British television. Having run BBC1, he now runs ITV1. “I think I’m actually the only person who has ever run both of those big channels,” he says.

Fincham lost his job at the BBC over an ill-prepared 22-word comment delivered at an informal press briefing on BBC1’s show reel of upcoming shows(“Definitely a memorable bit is Leibovitz getting it wrong and the Queen losing it a bit and walking out in a huff,” he quipped). With the comment generating misleading headlines such as “One’s Orf”, someone had to take the rap. But no one in television thought the BBC was better off for losing Fincham.

Within four months he had been unveiled as Director of Television at ITV. He joined at a time when Britain’s biggest commercial broadcaster was watching its audience figures fall off the bottom of the graph. Within months the business was being rocked by a collapse in advertising revenue that had many questioning whether it had a viable future.

How those fortunes have changed. In March ITV announced a £286m profit for 2010, up a staggering 213 per cent on the pitiful £25m return in 2009. The 16 per cent upturn in advertising was partly down to economic factors beyond the control of ITV – but it was also driven by a schedule revitalised by Fincham. In the early months of this year, ITV is beating its rivals. “We are significantly the best performing channel this year, we are up 3% [in audience], which is unusual to put it mildly for a mainstream channel and our best start to a year since 1990,” he says.

Fincham, 54, is talking from the 21 st floor of London Television Centre, where he has gathered about him his senior team, ITV’s nearest equivalent of the BBC’s sixth floor for channel controllers across town in White City.

Having commissioned the stand out television production of 2010 in Downton Abbey , Fincham has enjoyed a succession of drama hits this year, with Brenda Blethyn playing an obsessive murder detective in Vera , Paddy Considine starring in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and Olivia Williams appearing in Case Sensitive . James Purefoy has been cast as a barrister in the upcoming series Injustice . “We have been casting our drama in a particularly interesting way with a lot of actors who are fundamentally seen as film actors,” says Fincham.

Having waved goodbye to The South Bank Show (allowing Sky Arts to give a new home to an ITV institution), Fincham has launched Perspectives a new series in which leading figures from the arts have spoken of their passions, with hour long programmes from Ian McKellen on Lowry, Andrew Lloyd-Webber on the Pre-Raphaelites and Hugh Laurie on the music of New Orleans. Later this year he will introduce a new investigative documentary series, Exposure , which will mark ITV’s return to that genre 13 years after the end of World in Action .

On its digital channels, ITV has had surprise hits with the broadcasting on ITV4 of Indian Premier League Cricket and with The Only Way is Essex , an insight into the culture of a “golden triangle” between Chigwell, Loughton and Brentwood. Audiences of 1.4m have been strangely fascinated.

And on top of that, Fincham has the entertainment blockbusters The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent , both of which are currently beset by rumours concerning the future involvement of Simon Cowell, prompting suggestions that ITV might lose its golden goose. “So much is written about Simon Cowell in the newspapers that I can’t keep up with it on a daily basis,” complains Fincham.

He denies that the absence of Cowell from the judging panel on Britain’s Got Talent has prompted a tail off in ratings. “It’s actually doing very well indeed and we really like the new line up of Michael McIntyre and Amanda Holden and David Hasselhoff. Simon is coming back for the semi final and final in a couple of weeks and that’s great.”

He has known “for months and months” that Cowell will not be appearing as a judge on this year’s X Factor because of his commitments to the launch of X Factor USA . Cowell’s absence, he says, “puts to the first test: ‘Is this a great format in its own right and are there great people who can play those roles?’”

Fincham acknowledges Cowell as “a great television performer [and] an utterly driven television producer” and says his ten-year relationship with ITV “has got a long time to run”.

But is it not difficult for a Director of Television to be so heavily dependent on one extremely powerful figure? “Hang on a minute, I ran Talkback Thames and was in the meeting when The X Factor was pitched,” he says, referring to his time running the independent production company which makes both reality shows with Cowell’s firm Syco. “It’s not a question of being dependent. It’s like saying ‘How dependent is Warner Brothers on the Harry Potter franchise?’”

He expects ITV’s big reality shows to continue for a long time, a contrast with Channel 4’s jettisoning of Big Brother . Reality formats, Fincham argues, have been given added relevance by the growth of social media. “ I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! last year had its best ratings for about four years. In the world of Facebook and Twitter that we are in, suddenly people engage with these shows differently. Wagner, a contestant on The X Factor , was the second most mentioned personality on Facebook last year. When The X Factor began Facebook didn’t exist, I don’t think. Twitter certainly didn’t exist!”

This interaction offers Fincham opportunities to use ITV content to make the organisation less dependent on what chairman Archie Norman calls the “faulty shower” of advertising revenue. It sells iPad apps with recipes linked to This Morning and fresh opportunities may emerge from Red or Black? , ITV’s new roulette-based game show.

Fincham keeps returning to the breadth of the programming he is seeking to offer the ITV audience. Having run both BBC1 and ITV1 “one thing you learn is if you want to get to a big broad audience you need to open your doors to everybody”.

His experience with Crowngate has not made him risk-averse, he says. “I’m absolutely sure there’s no risk free way of doing this job, I’m not in the least bit bothered about what happened to me before.”

To fund his film-star dramas he has been prepared to drop other long-running ITV signature programmes, from The South Bank Show to The Bill and recently Taggart . He does not want to dwell on that. “We have got 55 years of ITV heritage behind us but sitting in the driver’s seat I do not look over my shoulder at it.”

Up the corridor from his office the drama department has positioned a plastic alligator. The mannequin human leg disappearing down its throat seems symbolic of the genre’s appetite for budget, and of Fincham’s instinct for the survival of the fittest in his schedule.

A season on Darwin was his first commission at BBC1, where he barely had the chance in two years to demonstrate the reputation for brilliant instinct he had earned as head of Talkback. He references the great naturalist again when emphasising the enduring importance of the two channels he has run. “In a Darwinian way, you go back to 1966 and there were only two channels and now there are over 300 channels but those first two channels are still the biggest channels,” he says, claiming the growth of minor channels with the spread of digital television is now at an end.

One show he is not ready to sacrifice is Daybreak , where he has tried to replicate the success he had with Adrian Chiles and Christine Bleakley on BBC1’s The One Show . Like predecessors TV-am and GMTV it was “launched into a headwind” but is now improving, he claims. Fincham is looking forward to an autumn reunion with Jonathan Ross who he employed at BBC1 on a £6m-a-year salary that became emblematic of BBC overspending. The ITV boss has been happy to offer a “great broadcaster” a way back from the Sachsgate affair that followed Fincham’s own unwelcome moment in the spotlight.

The son of an accountant who “ran off to the circus” of entertainment, Fincham was part of a Cambridge Footlights crowd that included Griff Rhys Jones and Jimmy Mulville, now both powerful figures in television. Having failed to make it as a musician or composer he found himself wandering around Wandsworth Common in London in the rain thinking “Oh my God, what have I done? I have made the wrong decision.” Then he received the offer to join Talkback, later running the company and making an estimated £12m from its sale.

Smart, charming and seemingly relaxed, he finishes the conversation by talking of his pride in ITV’s coverage of the Royal Wedding, an integral part of ITV1’s broad output. Although the BBC is the nation’s default position for such events, ITV cut the five to one beating it took in last year’s World Cup ratings down to three to one. “I will be honest there was no commercial return on [the broadcast] and there was no obligation to do it for regulatory reasons,” he says. “But we are a national broadcaster and we wanted to cover it properly and we did.” He may yet get an invitation to the Palace.

Fincham's greatest hits

* During a 20-year stint at TalkBack Productions between 1985 and 2005, Fincham was responsible for some of BBC 2's most successful comedies including Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge, and Never Mind the Buzzcocks. He was also involved with Pop Idol, the Apprentice, Smack the Pony and Da Ali G Show.

* Fincham became BBC 1 controller in 2005. He was responsible for the current affairs and lifestyle programme The One Show, which launched in 2006.

* Fincham rejuvenated Saturday evening family viewing with programmes such as How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria and enjoyed ratings success with Dr Who and Robin Hood.

* In 2008, he was appointed director of television at ITV, overseeing The X Factor, which beat its BBC 1 competitor Strictly Come Dancing in a ratings war when the two shows went head to head.

* In 2010, he axed the crime series The Bill after 26 years, then enjoyed success with the period drama Downton Abbey.

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