Part Three

Barney Green takes on ITV

First published August 2001

My wild cards were as follows:

1. ITV is offered exclusive interviews with Saddam Hussein and Michael Jackson.

Both would featured in Sixty Minutes with Trevor McDonald asking the questions. I insisted on editorial control, if Saddam or Jacko weren’t happy with that then the interview was off, although I was happy to let them both see the questions – it’s not that unusual for a big set-piece interview. Then I was asked if I would pay them both. Stupidly I thoughtlessly said yes, but quickly corrected myself and said we wouldn’t pay Saddam Hussein. The fee could go to charity instead. We’d be happy to pay Jacko, though.

2. This Morning’‘s ratings share falls to zero – what do you do?

I repeatedly questioned the validity of this wild card, arguing that this would never happen. But I made some vague noises about altering the format and sacking presenters. It was hard to know what to do without knowing why the viewers had turned off – in real life I would commission research. Perhaps the audience didn’t like the show without Richard and Judy? If so, I’d make plans for a new show.

3. Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush bombs – where now for Ant and Dec?

It’s a tough one, because I’d already consigned Slap Bang to history as a flop after one series when perhaps it could have been revitalised with the right production – after all, the first series of The Late Late Breakfast Show was a failure in ratings and critical terms. So with two perceived failures under their belts it would be tough for the lads to bounce back. But I hadn’t envisaged them leaving SM:TV Live – I saw them “coming in late” (à la Phillip Schofield) after doing Toothbrush the night before. So there would be a period of retrenchment on SM:TV, before looking for a new primetime vehicle, possibly a sitcom.

4. William Roache is killed in a car crash.  His family state they cannot bear seeing him in Coronation Street, however Ken Barlow’s character is in the middle of a major storyline.

Firstly I attracted my fellow controllers’ opprobrium by refusing to cancel the next episode of Coronation Street, although I would precede it with a suitable tribute, of course. Perhaps I was being inflexible, and real-life opposition would probably have made me change my mind. But my argument was that his fans would want to see the programme, they wouldn’t want to watch Family Fortunes instead, and just screening a tribute didn’t seem all that different from just showing the episode. And Roache is on record as saying he wanted to play Ken for the rest of his life, an attitude which suggested that “the show must go on”. There were also quizzical looks when I announced that I would recast the role of Ken Barlow for a couple of weeks to resolve the story before writing him out. It seemed absurd – but no less ridiculous than having someone suddenly announce Ken’s death in the Rovers, Len Fairclough-style. Of the two options, this seemed the less cowardly.

I was surprised at how much I was left off the hook by the regulators and my fellow controllers – although it didn’t feel like it at the time. Perhaps it’s because ITV is routinely dismissed as a mainstream channel that, in retrospect, they couldn’t find much to find fault with, and what they didn’t like were the things I’d changed. Most of the criticisms seemed to centre on marginal programming – would Scottish viewers want to watch The Premiership at 10pm? Would CBS be happy with ITV editing a 2am screening of David Letterman?

Meanwhile, nobody seemed to take issue with my primetime line-up, reliant as it was on multiple outings for Millionaire, Coronation Street and Emmerdale, although there were doubts about a more youthful look to Fridays, and nobody liked The Chase. I’ve already detailed my battle with the regulators over Saints and Sinners, but that aside, there seemed little to quibble with in their analysis, and I agreed with their conclusion that all channels needed to serve minority interests better.

Of course, ITV is a regional service, and there was no way I was going to provide 15 different schedules each serving their community in their own fashion. The only changes I made after the regulators had spoken involved improving the overnight sports service and shuffling a few programmes around to avoid clashes with Channel 4.

Perhaps what surprised me most was the competitive element I felt when both creating my scheduling and making my pitch to the regulators. Having been assigned Britain’s most popular channel, I wanted to keep it that way, I desperately wanted to win, and I couldn’t avoid a feeling of schadenfreude when Graham unveiled his assiduously public service vision of BBC1. My ITV would wipe the floor with it in the ratings, I smugly decided. But I still wouldn’t be watching.

<Part Two