ITV chases its own tale

You have to hand it to ITV: they know how to milk success. Take the recent spin-offs from its two most successful entertainment shows, I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

You may have thought the 90-minute documentary on Easter Monday said everything there needed to be said about the cheating major and his coughing scam – but no.

On Friday, 9 May, a follow-up Tonight programme, Millionaire: The Final Answer, managed to squeeze a few extra drops of value out of the sorry saga.

Earlier that same night there was another Tonight special on former EastEnders star Danniella Westbrook. “She survived cocaine addiction -now the inside story of how she survived ITV’s jungle reality show.”

While Tonight was giving us the in-depth analysis, ITV News was faithfully reporting each tantrum and eviction from I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! On ITV’s Lunchtime News on Tuesday, 6 May, James Mates – he of the expressive eyebrows – was interviewing Christine Hamilton live from the This Morning studio about Westbrook’s surprise departure from the Australian campsite.

I felt for Mates. Last month he was dodging bullets as he covered the final stages of the battle for Baghdad.

Now he found himself exploring the stress and strains of the Bushtucker Challenge.

The sight of the ITV diplomatic editor interviewing an ITV daytime chat show guest about an ITV reality show contestant on an ITV news programme would have been inconceivable a year ago.

There’s no better example of the redtop agenda which ITV is now pursuing as it seeks to create a populist alternative to the BBC’s news and current affairs output.

ITV would defend its agenda, saying Celebrity was the most talked about TV show of the year – and just look at the tabloid column inches.

If you take this argument to its logical conclusion, of course, then ITV News could completely vanish up its own editorial agenda with endless reports on Coronation Street, Champions’ League football, Heartbeat, Emmerdale and exclusives by Martin Bashir.

The degree to which ITV News focuses on ITV’s programmes could also be influenced by the degree to which ITV controls its news supplier, ITN.

This is one of the hottest topics of debate as the communications bill makes its way through Parliament.

Granada and Carlton would like to own ITN outright. At the moment the law says they are allowed a maximum 40 per cent share. The remaining 60 per cent is currently held by Reuters, Daily Mail & General Trust and Lord Hollick’s United Business Media.

The thinking behind the ownership rule was to protect ITN’s commercial and editorial independence as a news supplier, not just to ITV, but also to other customers such as Channel 4 and Five.

The ITV companies say they need to become sole owners, so they can invest with confidence and compete with the mighty resources of the licence-funded BBC and Murdoch’s Sky News.

There’s always been something a bit peculiar about three rival commercial TV networks buying their news services from a single supplier. It’s a bit like Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham all sharing the same stadium and ground staff.

ITN has had to maintain some complex Chinese walls, and it hasn’t always been easy keeping three rival customers happy at the same time.

I should know, as I’ve been on both sides of the equation – first as editor of Five News and subsequently as controller of news at Five.

Despite the potentially anti-competitive arrangement, I always felt ITN’s peculiar role as news supplier for rival commercial channels was justified on the grounds that Channel 4 and Five could never afford a dedicated newsgathering infrastructrure on their own.

In these circumstances it seems quite sensible for the three commercial TV networks to pool as much of their news resources as possible while maintaining distinct independent editorial production teams.

In my experience, this system has worked because the ITN management has been scrupulously fair in dealing with its three competing customers. Deciding which picture and information could be shared and which was exclusive to particular service hasn’t always been easy.

If ITN becomes – in effect – the news division of ITV, this balancing act could become much harder.

It’s difficult to remain even-handed to all your customers when you are wholly owned by your most important client.

Whatever happens to ITV News, Tonight has already staked out its claim to be the UK’s first red-blooded tabloid current affairs show. It’s done this partly through enterprise and partly with the aid of a chequebook.

The agenda may be unapologetically populist, but with Michael Jackson and the cheating major under its belt, Tonight has made its mark.

By comparison, the BBC’s efforts to find a popular current affairs format to match Tonight have been pretty feeble.

Real Story, presented by Fiona Bruce, has just finished its first run with an average audience share of 12 per cent – the worst performance of any programme on BBC One.

When Tonight first launched it was ridiculed, but at least it was noticed, thanks to an exclusive interview with Stephen Lawrence’s alleged attackers.

After 10 weeks Real Story has had little or no journalistic impact. Last week the final programme in the run claimed to have an “exclusive” report on drug abuse in football. This exclusive turned out to be the results of an undergraduate survey of 700 players. The headline finding: one in 20 footballers say they know someone on their team who uses drugs.

Real Story could do with some real resources to compete with Tonight -but these kind of shows also need editorial ambition and a bit of tabloid chutzpah too.

Chris Shaw is senior programme controller at Five. He’ll be back in four weeks

Next week: Bill Hagerty

by Chris Shaw

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