Friday, 30 January 2009

ITV: Making a crisis out of its dramas...

It was revealed yesterday (28th) that ITV will not be recommissioning their sleepy Sunday night drama series ‘Heartbeat’ and its hospital-set spin-off ‘The Royal’. 'So what?' you may cry – these shows are hardly the stuff of Stuff (if you know what I mean) – I tend to go for edgier, more imaginative TV and as I find both series to be the television equivalent of mogadon you might reasonably expect me to be a bit ambivalent about their passing (although ITV, playing the announcement down yesterday, stated that the shows were on hold for the moment because the former, at least, has built up such a backlog of untransmitted episodes that there are enough shows ready to be screened to last well into 2010) And in fact you’d be right – obviously I don’t watch either show but their disappearance from the screen is disquieting for all sorts of reasons, regardless of who watches them and why, particularly as the indication from ITV has been that these two popular dramas are likely to be replaced by cheaper, more cost-effective reality shows which, they will undoubtedly argue, pull in higher viewing figures.

ITV are in trouble. Observers of TV viewing trends (and I’m one of them) will have noticed, with some concern, that the Networks’s drama output has been struggling in the last few years. 2008 was a particularly poor year for ITV; a string of new dramas, highly-touted and with huge expectations, crashed and burned. The Palace, Harley Street, Lost in Austen, Britannia High – just four which come immediately to mind, four which staggered, unloved and barely-watched, to the end of their first and only series. Other long-running dramas are under-achieving – shows like Midsummer Murders and Taggart are now attracting substantially-lower audiences than they were a few years back (regardless of any issues involving falling terrestrial TV audiences in the face of the ‘rise’ of non-terrestrial) – and even the two flagship soaps, ‘Coronation Street’ and ‘Emmerdale’ are feeling the audience pinch. But ITV’s raft of reality/talent shows – I’m a Celebrity, Britain’s Got Talent, the X Factor, Dancing on Ice – seem to go from strength to strength, year after year. As they say in some American dramas – you do the math. Comparatively speaking, reality/talent shows (and the string of cheap’n’cheerful documentaries ITV seems to run in prime time on too many nights of the week – things like ‘Help! I’m Too Fat To Talk!’ and ‘Builders From Hell on Holiday’) cost buttons to make. Drama, however, don’t come cheap. I’ve no figures to bandy about but I imagine that an hour of drama – writers, actors, designers, crew – costs a fair bit more than an hour of repellent flathead Simon Cowell (other opinions are available) pulling faces at deluded karaoke singers. Yet the latter can pull in 10 million viewers and the former might struggle to reach 4. It’s not, frankly, a situation ITV could be expected to keep tolerating. The logic – and it’s inarguable, really, from a commercial perspective – is that it’s pointless spending a fortune on a drama no-one’s really interested in when you can spend half the money on more weeks of a cheesy talent show people sit and watch in their millions. So shows like ‘Heartbeat’ and ‘The Royal’, sleepy Sunday night stuff, harmless and inoffensive and catering to a certain demographic at a certain time of the week, face the axe when their viewing figures start to fall (which they undeniably have – ‘Heartbeat’ once commanded massive audiences of up to 16 million; these days it’s lucky to get 5 million). It may be possible to argue that these shows in particular have run their course – ‘Heartbeat’ is set in the Sixties and yet the show has run for 18 years! But it strikes me that, instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater ITV, if they feel they need to get rid of these shows, might be better served in at least trying to find a replacement or two – similar feel-good easy-watch shows – to satisfy the current audience and maybe coax back a few of those who have become bored by ‘Heartbeat’. Of course the risk they face – and recent experience suggests it’s not an insubstantial risk – is that their news shows will cost a lot to make and won’t find an audience. Better then, they seem to reason, to fill the time with a tabloid documentary or two or maybe a few new reality shows.

This genuinely disturbs me. I’m a fan of drama and while there may be certain genres I don’t really do – I’m a bit detectived out, if I’m honest – I’m always pleased to see dramas occupying prime time positions. And I’d always rather see a drama on the screen than some shouty, clap-along talent nonsense or a celebrity sign-along starring people from ‘Hollyoaks’ I’ve never heard of and have no interest in. But it’s clear that this is the path ITV is pursuing; as well as the ‘Heartbeat’ axing, the redoubtable old Police warhorse ‘The Bill’ is now losing an episode a week, being trimmed back to just one episode, to be screened at 9pm – the latter decision being used as a smokescreen to cover up the loss of 50% of the show’s yearly output with the promise that it’ll be “edgier and more hard-hitting” post-watershed. Just at the end of last year an expensive ITV remake of ‘A Passage to India' was abandoned on grounds of cost halfway through pre-production.

It's clear that our Tv companies are feeling the pinch these days - but then who isn't? The BBC is battling to be more cost-effective but seem to be making a better fist of it than the once-cash-rich ITV. I'd say that BBC Drama is in the best state it's been in a couple of decades - the Corporation's current raft of returning popular dramas is impressive by any reasonable standards. ITYv haven't been able to find a new drama with the potential to run for years (and this was one of Michael Grade's prime mission statements when he took controlling of the ailing Network a few years back) for some time while their slew if reality shows continues to prosper.

But I can't help feeling that ITV have blinded themseles as to why viewers have taken to deserting the Network, a handful of hits notwithstanding. The fact of the matter is tghat the british public have turned away from ITV because they're sick and tired of being patronised to and treated like simpletons by the Network. Cheapjack reality shows (and huge ratings failures) like Celebrity Love Island and Celebrity Wrestling a few years ago did huge damage to ITV's reputation. Carpet-bombing the weeknight schedles with episodes of 'Emmerdale' and 'Coronation Street' may have brought a smile to the faces of soaps fans but trhose of who can't be doing with these cheap, predictable dramas just got exapserated and turned away from ITV. Many haven't come back and now won't. Drama commissions tended to be salacious tabloid-inspired tat - 'Footballer's Wives' might as well have been serialised in 'Heat' Magazine for all it was worth as drama. 9pm, surely the centrepiece of any TV channel's night-time schedule, has slowly but surely been given over to hastily flung-together documentaries exploting some recent scandal or crisis or else from the interminable "...from Hell" series. Big audiences just aren't interested in stuff like that - but while new dramas also don't pull in big numbers, ITV can rest easy in the knowledge that the documentary about rip-off plumbers which only attracted 3 million viewers cost a damn sight less than a drama which might have attracted the same or less.

The problem is that ITV dramas have tanked because they've been rubbish. Even the ITV audience (it's not a demographic I care to think about considering the continuing popularity of Ant and Dec, Simon Cowell and assorted other broadcasting lightweights) can see through a sordid, grubby drama written and made to capitalise on some recent or current media obsession - Royal goings-on!! WAGs!! Sleazy doctors!! Compare and contrast with the encouraging figures some of ITV's new dramas have managed this year so far - short-run series like The Unforgiven, Trial and Retribution and Above Suspicion have scored good figures and they're clearly ITV's current drama strength. Maybe they've lost their magic touch when it comes to fashioning shows which can run year after year in long, regular series. And maybe that's how ITV sees itself in the future; a network with a few prestige serious drama mini-series dotted throughout the year, punctuated by hours and hours of soaps and with their Big Four reality titles tent-poling the whole year's schedule. It's a grim, grim thought.

So let's not rejoice at the passing of 'Heartbeat' and 'The Royal' because their going means more than just the killing-off of two rather twee dramas series - they're emblematic of a greater, more insidious malaise which sits at the core of British broadcasting like a cancer. If ITV really abandons its once-great drama tradition for the sake of the quick fix of big viewing figures for phone vote talent shows, it'll be a genuine cultural tragedy and an ITV reduced to being little more than the dumping ground for Simon Cowell's pet performers is, ultimately, an ITV that no-one really needs and surely no-one really wants.

Troubling times ahead for British television...


FRANK said...

A superb summing up there Paul. I have little else to add as it so eloquently matches my own view of the state of ITV.


Paul Mount said...

Thanks very much, Frank, appreciated! I'm really enjoying your blog by the way! How the Hell do you manage to find the time to get so much content up there??