Director of programmes Ben Frow tells Caroline Frost where he wants to spend the money freed up by axing Big Brother
It’s a good time to sit down with Ben Frow, Channel 5’s director of programmes. A purple patch that started with the station winning Channel of the Year at the Edinburgh TV Awards last August has just been topped with the station’s best Christmas since 2005 – and all this after Frow’s “carnage” assessment of the first half of the year.
From his now much more comfortable perch, the executive is happy to reel off a catalogue of titles that, in those first months of 2018, passed most of the nation by.
“We had a weak Big Brother in January,” he says. “Then, with Love Island (ITV2) and the World Cup coming at you, you couldn’t get a grip. It did get to the point where, during the weekly meeting where we generally look at the ratings, I said, ‘Let’s just not look, nothing lasts for ever, we’ll keep doing what we’re doing and something will stick.’” He chuckles. “For us, it was Britain’s Parking Hell.”
For Frow, the benefit of having such a small team around him – he now has a total of nine commissioners for the UK’s third biggest broadcaster – is that they are able to respond quickly to any such ratings dips and spikes.
“You’re chucking stuff at the wall, nothing’s working and then something hits. Ah, Our Yorkshire Farm, why do they like it? Who cares? It’s tapped into the nation. Let’s build. I hate to sound like Donald Trump, but I do rely on my gut. I am paid to wiggle my finger in the air.”
He cites the recent success of Kate v Meghan: Princesses at War?: “The turnaround was three weeks. It went out. On Monday morning the ratings came in. Ten minutes later, we were wondering… Princes at War? No, probably not. How about Windsors at War?”
He claps his hands. “Suddenly, we have a series. I got on the phone to ITN, two more shows, and I want them on the air in four weeks. Bish bash bosh. I hate to use the phrase no-brainer, but it was a simple-brainer.”
Away from this kind of tabloid offering, there’s no doubt that Channel 5 has gone upmarket. So, does it still suffer from an image problem?
“With some people, yes, prejudiced people who’ve never watched, but smart people, no,” he says. “In five years, we’ve gone from an almost all-acquisitions channel to one with lots of original, diverse content. I am a viewer and I know my audience, so I keep them – female, northern, slightly older – while encouraging a whole load of other viewers.
“Secrets of the National Trust could have been a BBC Two show, but we put Alan Titchmarsh in there, it all changes. So you’re taking a subject that isn’t a Channel 5 show, and you make it one.”
He’s not fibbing. Michael Portillo is on his way to the network while Jeremy Paxman is returning. This follows Frow’s extraordinary scoop in getting Michael Palin into North Korea last year.
“I’m a really competitive person,” he says gleefully. “I want people to look at us, and ask, ‘How do they get Michael Palin?’”
How did they get Michael Palin? The answer, it seems, lay in the strength of the project. “It doesn’t really matter where he goes, he’s Michael Palin,” says Frow. Apparently, he will be going elsewhere for Channel 5 soon, to what the programme chief can only call “equally interesting spots”.
Frow explains that he needs the likes of Paxman, Jeremy Vine and his Bafta-winning totem Jane McDonald to do the heavy lifting for the channel. McDonald certainly gave it some welly over Christmas and New Year holiday period, with six shows on New Year’s Eve alone.
“In return,” he says, “I can offer freedom, giving people such as Alan Titchmarsh a new creative space. Jeremy Vine had a connection to the audience [replacing Matthew Wright for weekday mornings]. This year, it will be more of his show and where he’d like to take it.”
The roster for 2019 will be funded in no small part by the £40m freed up by Big Brother’s departure. When I ask him what he’s going to do with the profits from the departure of his most expensive football player, a delighted Frow waxes lyrical with the metaphor.
“I’ve kicked my biggest player into the long grass, they weren’t performing any more, they had to go,” he laughs. “As for the money, I intend to spread it as widely as possible. You’re going to see 10 new players across all different genres.”
This will include more drama after the success of Blood – a five-parter stripped across one week – and a recent one-off Agatha Christie piece Agatha and the Truth of Murder. “We’ve had a 100% hit rate with drama,” says Frow. “OK, we’ve only done two, but still.… We’ll be scheduling more upmarket programming, looking at the 7pm slot, more returning hits, more ambitious projects, more reputational pieces, more stuff at the weekend – that money will go all over the place.
“No one show will be the replacement, but I’d like, at the end of this year, [to have had] a number of successes with the volume that Big Brother had. If I can get five shows on top of our existing ones, I start to have a very robust schedule commercially. And, with that, comes creative freedom.”
Creative freedom, for Frow, means more socially responsible projects we wouldn’t usually expect from 5. He mentions a social housing series, a show about Henry VIII through the prism of Donald Trump, and an increased regional quota from the current figure of 10%. “Personally speaking, I’d like to double that number,” says the Channel 5 boss, citing the success of The Yorkshire Vet – “a ratings hit, a small independent company that now employs 40 freelancers, tourism in that area on the rise, a Northern region transformed. That makes me happy.”
Frow knows that he can only pull any of this off if he keeps his Viacom bosses happy. “We’re very different from the Viacom brands,” he says. “I have to deliver numbers and revenue. Then, I can give myself permission to do the other stuff.”
After six years in the chair, the 57-year-old shows zero sign of an abating hunger. Following such an impressive transformation with relatively meagre resources, he’d be forgiven for being tempted away by rival broadcasters to a bigger role. There is no sign that this is of any interest at the moment, however.
“It’s my channel, I can do anything I like and nobody is going to stop me. That’s nothing to do with money,” he insists. “One of the benefits of having less money is that you have to really think about how you’re going to spend it. Too much money and you can get really self-indulgent.
“At TV3, it was all about, ‘I’m going to kick RTÉ’s arse.’ Here, it’s about proving to my rivals that, while we’re small, we can punch above our weight. When we get Michael Palin, or another show over 1 million, or beat Channel 4 for the day, or we get the number-one show at 10pm, here we are, still doing what we do, still punching above our weight.”
"The world is in a dark place right now… All my biggest shows are life-affirming"
Outside of this behind-the-scenes competition, Frow is convinced that audiences are in no mood right now for proper conflict: “The world is in a dark place right now, and we just want to hunker down and be reassured.
“All my biggest shows are life-affirming. In a worst-case scenario, it could just be me and my nine children on a Yorkshire farm, and life is good. People want reassurance, warmth, compassion.”
What about his Princesses at War? He giggles delightedly. “Oh yes, but they’re not really. We just like to think that they are.”