Digital Spy

Search Digital Spy

Media News

Weekend Spy: Going up a Grade

By
Weekend Spy: Going up a Grade
"Mr Grade, had you been in charge last year, would you have commissioned Love Island?" I asked ITV’s executive chairman at this week’s Voice of the Listener and Viewer Conference. "I hope not," was his reply. This year’s ITV schedule may have already been in place before he took over in January, but what plans does he have for 2008, and what challenges does he foresee for ITV? Joanne Oatts reports from the VLV spring conference.

It’s been four months since Michael Grade began his executive chairman role at ITV. He’s been doing the rounds with the channel controllers, and given his commissioners more power, he’s brought the FA Cup Final back to ITV and secured ITN news coverage until 2012.

Not a bad start. But speaking at the Voice of the Listener and Viewer spring conference this week, he said that while he was "impressed" with the some of the programming planned for 2007, it's 2008 he’s really focused on. "My urgent priority has been the quality of our programming," he said. "We are looking to broaden the range of our output and essentially to raise the ambition of our schedule. We must provide programmes that are more aspirational, less formulaic and more innovative. We do not want to be in the business of talking down to our audience."

So would Grade have made any different decisions had he been at ITV a few years back? "Moving the News At Ten to the outer reaches of the schedule was a catastrophe," and he indicated that he was "looking at the whole schedule" in the next few years to see how he could rectify this move. "And I would not have let ITV1 lose its lead at 9pm with mid-week drama," he added.

Grade emphasised the need for quality programmes produced in this country, calling it the "core of British broadcasting going forward." "British TV remains the best television, or the least worst – depending on your point of view – in the world;" pointing to recent dramas like Primeval, Mobile and the Jane Austen season as examples of UK-produced quality commercial television. "All new, all expensive, and all made in the UK. And there’s going to be plenty more where they came from," Grade said.

Comforting words. Though Grade expressed repeated concern that the industry is too focused on market changes, scheduling slots, or particular genres to be able to value its assets, or see the true investment ITV makes. The network will invest £1 billion in content this year, despite a £200 million drop in its revenue, and will shell out ten times as much on UK drama as Channel 4. Grade identified one of the biggest challenges it faces is maintaining this level of spend in original UK production: "Such investment will not come from the newcomers – the new channels. They find it much easier – and more profitable – to buy their audiences with ‘second hand’ material. Either shows that have had a life elsewhere that they can buy off the shelf, or very cheaply produced genres with small creative overheads. With the increase of these channels original production could become an endangered species."

"You don’t need to be in public ownership to provide real public value," Grade said. "Don’t overlook the huge role ITV continues to play in investment across all genres. Sustaining that is going to take commercial nouse on our part. We have to help ourselves first-and-foremost by improving our schedule, making quality programmes and taking new commercial opportunities." Grade identified that these commercial opportunities were an area that may require greater flexibility from the regulator: "We can’t hang on to every element of the past. Change is inevitable, and quite often a very good thing. But we need to guard against regulation which threatens to squeeze out investment, as we’ve seen with advertising around children’s TV." Grade did come in for some stick about the reduction of hours of children’s programming on ITV1, which he said was "not helped" by the new advertising restrictions. He later went on to express anger about the matter , but pointed to the CITV channel, which can be seen by 90% of the UK’s kids, as evidence of the network's commitment to children’s TV.

ITV’s commitment to the regions is something Grade feels strongly about, pointing to the fact that over half of its network commissions come from outside London, well above that of the BBC and Channel 4. "All of this is what ITV provides today; it gives crucial support to UK production and represents the value of what ITV is delivering to viewers. It cannot be taken for granted. In the past, ITV was a commercial monopoly. It operated under protected and regulated conditions…today it's very different world. With the rapidly increasing number of channels, it has brought more choice for viewers, but also more threats and challenges for the ‘old order’ of broadcasting," he added.

Ofcom has, for a long time, outlined its vision for a creating a public service publisher, which would produce quality content across all media, including new media. Grade thinks the industry should look closer to home: "We can start in the regions themselves. Our regional news programmes form the heart of our regional services. They play a crucial PSB role and they provide a valuable service to our viewers. We provide news plurality in the regions with the BBC which is good." Grade gave the examples of the investigation by the London Programme which led to a Parliamentary reclassification of the drug crystal meth, and to Yorkshire TV’s reports on carbon monoxide, as evidence of the value of these services.

But these don’t come cheap, costing ITV £100 million per year - the biggest investment in public service broadcasting outside the BBC. Unlike his predecessors, who have indicated that regional news is something of a ‘burden’ rather than something to be celebrated, Grade is keen to expand the services to create new commercial opportunities. This has already begun with the launch of ITV Local, which includes a local internet TV service for each region (in London each borough) as well as making much of ITV regional programming available online. Regional advertising at ITV is also one of the few areas that has seen a rise in revenue this year. "If we can help ourselves to drive business in the regions, we will invest in the regions. It makes good business sense," said Grade.

With regard to one of the big issues facing the industry right now, Grade concluded his keynote speech by coming out in favour of reserving some of the soon-to-be-auctioned analogue spectrum for free-to-air high definition services. Grade said: "We have a long and valued traditional in the UK of ensuring that everyone has access to the same quality of broadcasting on the main PSB channels. That is precisely what digital switchover seeks to achieve. Closing the door to HD on Freeview would undermine the principal of the universality of digital television. We will have seen off the digital divide only to create a ‘HD-divide.'"

Grade is aware that Ofcom’s position has been taken due to its remit in the Communication Act. "Though the very same act does state that government can intervene to shape the allocation of the spectrum," he said. "British viewers must be allowed to watch programmes made in the UK for the UK. And to enjoy the best possible quality, both in terms of editorial content and the highest standards of production and broadcasting, is a prize worth fighting for. All the PSBs are dedicated to preserving that. In the end, that is the test of what is public service broadcasting is, in my view: the investment we make in putting the viewers first," he added.

Voice of the Listener and Viewer: www.vlv.org.uk.

You May Like