Part Two

Barney Green takes on ITV

First published August 2001


Like the real bosses of ITV, my big decision was to decide where to put the network’s newly-acquired package of Premiership football highlights. Unlike the real bosses of ITV, I didn’t publicly agonise over it for a year.

10pm seemed the logical time – highlights lack the allure needed to air in primetime, moreover this season will see more and more of the marquee games shifted to Sunday and Monday to suit Sky and pay-per-view. Some weeks, ITV could be left with, say, Southampton v Aston Villa as its main attraction, and who wants to watch that at 7pm? I also placed a new irreverent magazine programme, Liquid Football, at noon, enabling it to compete better with the BBC and attract viewers which hadn’t yet set off for the match, something which never seemed to occur to the schedulers of On the Ball. It meant I had to axe CD:UK, and I took the opportunity to spin it off as a programme in its own right, in an attempt to develop a rival to Top of the Pops. But I couldn’t fit it into primetime, and I felt that even if I could, it might go the same way as the over-hyped The Roxy. So I decided to play it initially at 4pm, as a precursor to teatime viewing, and as part of an overall family feel to Saturday afternoons. I bought a brand name off the shelf – Now That’s What I Call Music – and during a series of negotiations with Channel 4, in which I let them gain access to our archive and Des Lynam, I obtained the rights to the first two series of Dawson’s Creek, to run at 5.30pm. The regulators wondered whether ITV should be running repeats on Saturday evening, but I argued that many fans who came late to the series would welcome the opportunity to see how it all began, and hell, it’s a popular show.

Channel 4, as part of our dealings, also provided ITV with Graham Norton, who was handed a new show expanding on the audience interaction element of his chat show, which would see Graham humiliating his audience in greater detail. It was pointed out that some of the revelations seen at 10.30pm might not be appropriate for teatime, but I was confident the humour could be toned down while still retaining a risqué feel. And we’d also signed Norton to a series of post-watershed specials. With a new look to early evenings established, I resolved to play it safe with Stars in Their Eyes and Who Wants to be a Millionaire, although I decided to import America’s cute twist to Millionaire, adding £10,000 to the top prize every time it went unwon. To follow Chris Tarrant, and provide a neat lead into The Big Match, I scheduled a new drama (which is genuinely in production), the tantalisingly entitled Footballer’s Wives, untantalisingly starring Denise Welch. Presumably she’s the manager’s missus. But I was definitely hoping for some glossy Dream Team-style schlock (In fact, Sky One’s entertainingly ridiculous football soap very nearly became part of the ITV schedule) to segue male and female viewers seamlessly from Denise to Des. In fact, I tried to palm Des off on C4 on a permanent basis, and lure Gary Lineker over from BBC1, but these plans came to nothing.


There was no way I was going to tamper with the sacred stone of Heartbeat on a Sunday evening. Like arch-scheduler Greg Dyke, I knew the most acute critic of my schedule would be my mum. So I had no option but to keep Bill Maynard, Derek Fowlds and co in gainful employment. And I realised how dispiriting it must be for BBC1′s schedulers to see the twin strikeforce of Weatherfield and Aidensfield cleaning up every Sunday year in, year out. Heartbeat was followed by another series of Cold Feet, a series I’ll happily admit to never watching. I can’t stand that bloke with the eyebrows. But it seems to work well on Sunday nights, and I decided to follow it with Frank Skinner. I like Frank, but his chat show seems to have gone off the boil since his “£20 million” transfer from the BBC. Hopefully a bit of extra time unavailable on weeknights, and the heritage of ITV’s Sunday night traditional “altcom” slot might reignite things – and Skinner’s audience dovetails nicely with the Cold Feet crowd too. And guess what – my mum likes Frank as well. So that’s the Street, the ‘Beat and the Feet on Sunday nights. Simple.

By accident, I discovered that ITV is required to provide two hours of religious programming every week – interesting, because the nation’s premier public broadcaster, BBC1, doesn’t do anything like as much as that. I reluctantly scheduled 90 minutes of traditional religious programming on Sunday mornings, and resolved to do something different in midweek … I also decided to innovate when it came to the Sunday political slot. Instead of one man in a grey suit interviewing another man in a grey suit, like On the Record, I felt ITV’s programme should try and engage its audience, and be irreverent and cheeky. And I knew just the man to do it – ITN political editor John Sergeant. I hired him to front a programme that would explore how politics, the spin doctors and the hacks interwove – explaining, for instance, how Michael Portillo’s bid for the Conservative leadership was thwarted. And unashamed stunts too – remember the headlines Five Live achieved when it exposed that the Sports Minister knew nothing about sport? That’s the kind of thing I wanted to watch on Sunday mornings, and I deliberately scheduled it after a football roundup to try and attract an audience that wouldn’t traditionally watch political programmes.


One of my first headaches when constructing my weekday schedule is another facing the network in real life – namely, who replaces Richard and Judy on This Morning. I decided to play it safe and take a risk. Firstly I recruited Trisha Goddard, as she has already tasted success for ITV daytimes, proving a capable, sympathetic interviewer. And it meant I could gleefully axe her horrible discussion show. I paired Trisha with newsreader Dermot Murnaghan. He’s an experienced, credible journalist with the lightness of touch needed for daytime television and, let’s face it, he’s the housewives’ choice. In the afternoon, I decided to deploy one of the stars for whom I was required to find a vehicle, Cilla Black. I resolved to create a more entertainment-based programme to counterweight This Morning‘s factual, magazine format, but still with elements of real life and studio discussion. Cilla would host the show live every afternoon, with a relatively big budget to attract star guests, and would try to learn a bit more about their emotional side and their relationships, rather than just having them plug their latest film or book.

It was suggested that Cilla might see this as a demotion – she wouldn’t be hosting Blind Date any more, and I’d axed The Moment of Truth – but daytime no longer holds the stigma it once did, and I felt it was a flagship show she’d be happy to front, in addition to other primetime series and specials. Then I axed Crossroads. Not because I felt it was a particularly bad programme, but it hasn’t made an auspicious start, largely because of poor scheduling. Teenagers tend not to want to watch a drama series about a hotel at 5pm, and despite attempting all sorts of permutations of news, regional news and soap, I just couldn’t find a more logical slot. So I decided to play to the schedule’s strengths, and create a new soap, based around a school and a college, linked by one family of staff and students and their friends. Teen appeal with adult interest too. Then at 5.30pm, rather than sticking on endless editions of Wheel of Fortune, I decided to combat Neighbours with out and out entertainment. I felt Blind Date had run its course on Saturday nights, but that it could still work as a teatime draw for teenagers and their parents. Out went Cilla, in came Cat Deeley, who I felt could successfully maintain the show’s equilibrium of smut and wholesomeness, but with a new “fresh and funky” feel. I was asked if this might not be a bit risqué for weekday teatimes, but I guessed it would largely be the same audience as Saturday nights anyway. I was also asked if the show would feature gay couples, and in a fit of conservatism, I said no – after all, the Saturday night show never has. But in retrospect, in the year 2001 this is ridiculous, especially when homosexuality has been tackled by Byker Grove in an earlier timeslot without frightening the horses. So maybe, maybe not. But definitely no pensioners. Now that really is offensive.

News has been a real problem for ITV for years now. Required to transmit a half hour bulletin and a 20 minute bulletin within peaktime, I tried all sorts of combinations, as I revealed earlier. Should we go back to 5.40pm and 10pm? What about 6pm, or even 7pm? Maybe the late news could play at 10.30pm? Eventually I came to the conclusion that the network’s viewers have been messed around enough already, and stayed with 6.30pm and 10pm, but with the late regional news folded into the main bulletin. It wasn’t a happy compromise – I still believe the national news should come before the regional bulletin – but one I had to live with.

Early evenings weren’t difficult. I never considered reducing – or increasing – the number of editions of Coronation Street, and reluctantly I felt it was in the network’s best interests to stick with Emmerdale every night. The regulators pointed out that ITV would be stripping the same programmes every day between 6am and 7.30pm. But you could say the same about the real-life BBC1 schedule, and I began to realise that stripping is a real comfort blanket for the harassed scheduler.

On Monday nights I placed another of my listed stars, Ross Kemp. Initially I thought about devising a new drama for him, but this seemed lazy, so my attention turned to creating an adventure game show for him to front. Then, in a fit of inspiration, I realised that Ross could play a fictional role within a reality show. I created The Chase, in which viewers volunteer to take part via a premium rate phonecall. Those selected would have – with the help of the show’s back-up team – to elude the grasp of the pursuing Kemp and his team for a week to win a million pounds. My fellow controllers likened the show dismissively to Wanted or The Interceptor but I felt it was far bigger in scope and interest. Viewers literally could have Ross Kemp banging on their door asking if they’d seen that week’s contestant. And if they helped him find them, they’d get a share in the million! It would be carefully choreographed to maximise the number of car and helicopter chases, but I felt I had a hit on my hands (and TV companies, the format is available for a small fee!) I even started to visualise the promotional campaign, huge posters with Kemp looking evil – “He’s slept with his wife’s best friend … he’s burnt down his pub … he’s been banged up … and now he’s after [big letters] YOU!”

I followed The Chase with The Vice, to round off a slightly blokey night’s viewing. Tuesday nights were an altogether safer affair – Who Wants to be a Millionaire followed by Bad Girls. And Wednesday nights saw Des Lynam fronting a live match from the Champions League. I decided that would be the perfect opportunity to deploy another of the programmes I obtained from Channel 4. Sex and the City seemed the prefect “girly” counterweight to two and a half hours of football, and I followed up with a suitably female-orientated movie. One of the female regulators objected to my admittedly blatant sexist stereotyping – it certainly wasn’t her idea of programming for women. But as a scheduler, you start to lose the notion of programming for individuals, especially when scheduling ITV. Scarily, you start to look at your viewers as a homogenised mass – the blokes get sport and the girls get Sex and the City. Everyone’s guilty of it. Even that most enlightened of networks, Channel 4, plays ER up against live football, because the drama has notionally acquired the status of female-friendly television – all those handsome doctors! But I never managed to devise a more intelligent method of programming a mainstream channel – instead you employ amateur psychology to try and construct a schedule you think will appeal to viewers and how you believe they live their lives. So, ridiculously you envisage a nation of blokes watching the match, before all exiting their front doors simultaneously a la Monty Python, heading off down the pub wearing a scarf to leave their wife or girlfriend to watch “their” programmes.

On Thursday nights, I placed the medical drama A&E at 8pm – I decided The Bill was on hiatus – followed by a revamped version of Tonight With Trevor McDonald. Here I was shamelessly angling for brownie points from the regulators – while my fellow controller for BBC1 conspicuously failed to run current affairs in primetime – and it worked, although its 9pm slot was not to be tampered with, I was told. I recast the programme as Sixty Minutes, borrowing the title from CBS’s venerable factual flagship, and I envisaged a sort of current affairs exchange between the two – Dan Rather could explain pregnant chads to Britain and Trevor McDonald would no doubt end up profiling Camilla Parker-Bowles for American audiences. But my fellow controllers weren’t enthused by this special relationship.

I wanted to do something different with religion, and create a format that people might choose to watch without ever realising it was a religious programme. I devised Saints and Sinners, in which Davina McCall interviewed a famous or notorious guest every week and, like St Peter, asked them to look back on their lives and talk about issues and incidents in their lives which had a moral dimension to them, and discuss their own feelings about mortality. At the end of the show, the audience would, Ready Steady Cook-style, decide whether the guest was a saint or a sinner. I felt this was a brave, radical and unashamedly populist bid to move religion and ethics out of the Sunday ghetto. Unfortunately, the regulators disagreed, insisting it “wasn’t a religious programme”. I vehemently disagreed, arguing that although it didn’t fit the traditional mould of religious programming, it was a brave attempt at examining issues of ethics and mortality, and breathing new life into the genre. Moreover, it would appeal to non-religious viewers. The majority of viewers these days have no religious commitments, and many others aren’t Christian, so how else was television supposed to tackle the subject? (I was the only controller to tackle religious programming, which is interesting considering my atheism). And questions of ethics have always been at the heart of religious television – indeed, the BBC’s department is officially called Religion and Ethics. The regulators and I fobbed each other off with a vague commitment to get a “religious adviser” on board the production team, and I began to get a flavour of how these stand-offs are handled in real life.

I also wanted to make a radical change to ITV’s arts programming. Looking at the schedules, I felt more and more that The South Bank Show was out of place on the network. It felt like “fig-leaf” television, an attempt to reassure the regulators that although ITV was the channel of quizzes and soaps, here was something of quality that allowed them to keep the barbarians at bay and sleep safely at night. But the programme has been nudged further and further back in the schedules, appearing more and more infrequently. This seemed cowardly, and something had to be done. So I went for broke – I axed it, and interestingly, nobody made a sustained bid to pick it up, although Melvyn Bragg ended up on Channel 4 after BBC1 and BBC2 made separate attempts to hire him. I decided to create an accessible magazine show that might connect a little bit more with ITV’s viewership, although still with substance. It would feature the kind of artists you might read about in G2 – Eminem or Deborah Bull for instance, but profiled with style and definitely no Late Review-style beard-stroking. And I hired Mark Radcliffe as my frontman, he seemed to exemplify the spirit I was after – funny, knowledgeable and accessible. After all, he hosted the best arts programme on radio for three years. The Strand would feature features and previews plus live interviews and performance in front of a live audience, although there was scope for specials devoted to one subject. I was prepared for the ire of the regulators at ditching South Bank, and I had a compelling defence for pulling it, but I didn’t hear a peep. You have been warned, Melvyn.

In a crazed moment of insanity, I also hired Wayne Hemingway to front a new late entertainment show taking a look at fashion in a new, lively way. Fittingly, it demonstrated how creating programmes is a bit like the emperor ‘s new clothes – sometimes there’s nothing there, but just keep pretending there is and everyone will believe it. I couldn’t think of a decent format to fill a late night slot, so I took a leaf out of Michael Grade’s book when he had an hour to devise a format for Selina Scott – what was that terrible idea for a fashion programme? And Wayne Hemingway seemed to sum up, for all sorts of reasons, what I was trying do with ITV.

Friday nights I had big plans for – here was my chance to refresh ITV’s profile and aim for a younger audience. First up, I had to find a vehicle for the last of my listed stars, Ant and Dec. I felt Slap Bang had been weak and reliant on poor ideas, so with the blessing of Channel 4, I revived a tried and tested format for the lads, Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush at 8pm. Then at 9pm, I picked up Ally McBeal which Channel 4 had dropped. ITV has tried and failed to show imported drama on Friday nights before, with The Practice, which was among a package of programmes exchanged with C5 in return for some late-night imported football. But I felt Ally already had a strong and viable following, which would only increase on ITV. Some of my controllers wondered whether this was the kind of programming that might appeal to viewers who would be out on Friday evenings – that psychology coming into play again – but this didn’t seem to be borne out by the fact that Channel 4 and, until recently, BBC2 angled heavily for a young audience on a Friday night.

Ally McBeal was followed up by Sketch Show, another real programme in production from Steve Coogan’s new comedy stable. Comedy was another problem for ITV, and when BBC1 announced they were ditching The Savages, a show I felt had promise, I tried to grab it for ITV. It seemed almost predestined – yet another Simon Nye show to switch channels, although the deal fell through because BBC1 wouldn’t let me have that and Silent Witness in return for The South Bank Show. Then, before a late news bulletin, at 10.30pm I placed Spy TV, a British version of new format I discovered during a casual trawl through the US networks’ sites. From the creator of Big Brother, Spy TV is an “edgy new series that takes hidden-camera comedy to an outrageous level”. What happens when an overzealous mall security guard hands out tickets for non-existent laws to perplexed shoppers? Or when a woman is tricked into thinking she has psychic powers? It’s a hit in the States, it’s bound to end up over here, and I wanted it for ITV. Remember where you heard it first.

<Part One