ITV's new hitmakers

ITV's new hitmakers

Friday, 10th June 2016
Broadchurch was ITV's last hit original series (credit: ITV)
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Neil Midgley asks if Kevin Lygo’s revamped commissioning team has the X Factor

Kevin Lygo’s new job is possibly the biggest in British television – and certainly the most exposed. ITV’s incoming Director of Television must, together with his freshly minted team of commissioning chiefs, arrest a decline in audience that saw the main channel’s viewing share halve between 2000 and 2015.

Downton Abbey is gone, The X Factor is on the wane, and ITV hasn’t launched a breakout hit since Broadchurch in 2013. The company’s share price, which peaked at over 280p last July, fell close to 200p recently.

There are fears of ad spend going down and competition from Netflix going up.

While Niall Sloane remains Head of Sport, Michael Jermey keeps charge of news and Helen Warner stays at the helm of daytime, Lygo has brought in five hand-picked senior lieutenants to sort out primetime – and deliver the new hits that ITV so desperately needs.

Television presents a user’s guide to the new team.

Peter Davey

Head of Comedy Entertainment

Who is he?

The only one of the prime-time five to survive from Peter Fincham’s commissioning team (he worked for former Director of Entertainment Elaine Bedell), Davey has been promoted in the ­reshuffle, to work directly for Lygo.

His challenge

"There’s a massive amount of opportunity at ITV," says Davey. "We have a huge breadth of shows in comedy entertain­ment – panel shows, studio shows, scripted comedy, live events, game shows, and more – for not only the main ITV channel, but also ITV’s digital channels, particularly ITV2.

"My brief is to work collaboratively with the whole production community, to find the best new entertainment and comedy ideas through the ITV week – and create more weekend hits such as Ninja Warrior."

How will he perform?

"I’m really excited about how they are sending out all the signals of being highly competitive, and everything’s up for grabs. ITV feels open for business," says Jon Thoday, Managing Director of independent producer Avalon. "And we are particularly interested in early-evening Saturday and ITV2.

"We know, from having launched Harry Hill’s TV Burp in an early-evening Saturday slot, that it can be a great place to do something new. And ITV2 is proven as a place where you can successfully launch a show."

However, a senior industry source points to the fact that ITV is launching three new talent shows – The Voice, The Voice Kids and Little Big Shots (a UK version of a hit NBC kids’ talent search) – into a talent-show market that is at least saturated, if not in serious decline.

"The danger is that ITV has added two new kids" talent shows, when Britain’s Got Talent already relies heavily on child acts," says the source. "They’ve tripled the burden on an already depleted ­casting pool. Either that weakens BGT, or the other two shows aren’t nearly as well cast."

Siobhan Greene

Head of Entertainment

Who is she?

As Head of Television at Simon Cowell’s Syco TV, Siobhan ‘Shu’ Greene helped to create and launch Britain’s Got Talent and The X Factor. From 2012, she worked under Lygo – in his former job at ITV Studios – producing shows such as Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway.

Her challenge

Greene is responsible for ITV’s ‘big five’ entertainment shows – The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! and Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, as well as the transfer of The Voice from BBC One. "The job of keeping these shows shining brightly is something that I feel born to do," says Greene. "It’s going to be a fantastic challenge – but one that we are all up for. Plus, working with independent producers to create a new generation of shows is, for me, the icing on the cake."

How will she perform?

"Shu is Yorkshire born and bred – if you could cut through her, she’d have 'ITV' stamped like a stick of rock," says a senior industry source. "She’s incredibly good with talent management, and she survived a pretty brutal battle with cancer. Don’t be fooled by the broad grin and the gorgeously naive persona. There’s a ruthless winner in there who is utterly driven to succeed."

ITV has been delicately negotiating a new deal with Simon Cowell, for three more years of BGT and The X Factor (through to 2019). At the same time, Greene has to successfully relaunch their main BBC competitor, The Voice, as an ITV show (and launch The Voice Kids, too).

"There are a lot of us who just don’t think The Voice will do the business on ITV," says the source. "Which, bizarrely, will leave Cowell in a much stronger position."

Polly Hill

Head of Drama

Who is she?

Over 10 years at the BBC, Hill worked her way up to be Controller of Drama Commissioning – a job she took over from Ben Stephenson only last May.

Her challenge

Though drama is consistently performing better for ITV than any other genre, with its 2016 hits including The Durrells and Marcella, its output is perceived as unoriginal. Moreover, its dramas are considered by viewers and critics alike to have been outshone by Hill’s own recent BBC shows, such as The Night Manager and Happy Valley.

How will she perform?

"Polly is the best possible choice for ITV," says Patrick Spence, Managing Director of drama indie Fifty Fathoms, which makes Fortitude for Sky Atlantic and made The A Word for BBC One under Hill. "She has the courage to bring an era of ultra-conservatism in drama commissioning to an immediate end.

"And the writing community will trust Polly when she says that ITV will give them space to express themselves again. Writers who had turned their backs on ITV will now come back."

Even with Hill’s Rolodex, it will be a struggle to return ITV drama to its former glories. "Name one iconic drama character on ITV," says a drama industry insider. "In the 1990s, there was Morse, Robbie Coltrane in Cracker, Jane Tennison. Now there isn’t one.’

Hill also faces the knotty problem of ITV Encore, a drama channel that is currently exclusive to Sky and which spends £10m or more annually on original commissions – so far, to little success.

Shows such as The Frankenstein Chronicles and Houdini & Doyle have not set the ratings on fire. "But look at Hill’s more niche work on BBC Two, with shows such as Wolf Hall and The Honourable Woman," says the insider. "If anybody can make Encore work, she can."

Sue Murphy

Head of Factual Entertainment

Who is she?

Murphy worked for Lygo at Channel 4, as his Head of Features and Factual Entertainment. More recently, she was Joint Managing Director of All3Media subsidiary Optomen.

Her challenge

"We have huge strength in the schedule pre-watershed with the soaps, but my aim is to find some great factual entertainment series that can sit alongside them," says Murphy. "Returnable series are the holy grail. To get to where we want to be, we’ll have to take some risks and back the talent and the ideas we believe in."

How will she perform?

"I think she’s brilliant, I genuinely do," says Alex Fraser, who, as Creative Director of Maverick TV, made Embarrassing Bodies, How to Look Good Naked and 10 Years Younger for Murphy at Channel 4. "One of the things Sue’s very good at is thinking about what her audience wants – I don’t think she’ll just impose Channel 4 sensibilities on ITV. But I think she will move away from the travelogues."

Fraser also believes that factual commissioner Jo Clinton-Davis, who is staying with ITV and reporting to Murphy, will be an asset. "Jo’s journalistic interrogation, coupled with Sue’s rather bold, brave, wonderful, populist mind, will be a bit of gold dust," says Fraser.

Another senior independent producer puts it more bluntly: "There’s a bit of the Janet Street-Porter about Sue. Other creative people can find that overbearing and overwhelming."

Industry figures also point to the disastrous Hotel GB, a mish-mash format that Optomen made for Channel 4 in 2012, saying that Murphy’s time as a producer has been ‘quiet’ since then. "But ITV factual can only get better," says one. "It’s ground zero. It’s a total disaster area, it’s a blasted heath, where nothing is growing."

Rosemary Newell

Head of Digital Channels and Acquisitions

Who is she?

A former BBC One scheduler, Newell was Head of Channel Management across Channel 4’s entire portfolio under Lygo – before joining Discovery Networks International in 2014.

Her challenge

To make sense of ITV’s unruly channel portfolio. This includes ITV2 (which benefits from BBC Three’s closure, especially the transfer of Family Guy, but has suffered from a lack of consistency) and ITV Encore (which attracts woefully low audiences despite spending millions on original drama).

How will she perform?

"Rosemary is amazing," says a senior independent producer. "She has never sought the limelight – she’s very happy standing behind charismatic people such as Kevin, but she’s actually doing a lot of the hard work. She’s an incredibly clever, intuitive, subtle operator. She made the Channel 4 schedule sing for Kevin."

Although Avalon’s Thoday is enthusiastic about ITV2’s potential for finding hit shows, another producer complains that ‘every time I pitch to ITV2, they want something different’.

Newell also has the tricky problem of finding a role – if there is one – for international acquisitions on ITV’s main channel after Pushing Daisies, Dexter and The Americans failed to set audiences on fire.

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