A new era for ITV

A new era for ITV

Wednesday, 14th December 2022
Kevin Lygo (credit: Richard Kendal)
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Kevin Lygo explains to Steve Clarke what makes streaming service ITVX unique

The final quarter of 2022 is likely to go down as one of the most significant periods in the long and remarkable TV career of Kevin Lygo, ITV’s Managing Director of media and entertainment.

For starters, there’s been one of the most successful ever series of the entertainment flagship I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, not forgetting ITV1’s high-profile coverage of the Qatar World Cup, with plaudits for the irascible studio pundit Roy Keane and, crucially, the overdue launch of the broadcaster’s shiny and heavily marketed new streaming service, ITVX.

“It’s an exciting time here,” muses Lygo. “It was inevitable that ITV would step full stride into the world of streaming. Soon, I think, streaming as a separate thing will vanish. Everything will be streamed. ITVX is us creating a destination for viewers to go to when they’re looking for things to watch. Remember, within it, is everything we’re currently doing.”

Lygo is an unusual media luminary: early on in his life in TV, in the 1990s, he gave it all up for several years to sell Islamic art in London and Paris. But if he is in any way stressed at the thought of being the front man for the launch of ITVX, it doesn’t show.

Having turned 65 in September, he no longer has anything to prove – but ITV most certainly does, as the ITVX service replaces ITV Hub, which consistently punched below its weight.

As Lygo sets out X’s stall, it seems ITV is leaving little to chance: it is ploughing £160m into new commissions for the service, which has been some 18 months in the planning.

The aim is for ITVX to take its place alongside the mighty BBC iPlayer and the deeply inventoried All 4 – and compete with the US streamers. It is an admission that ITV needs to extend its reach beyond the loyal and ageing audiences who regularly tune in for staples such as Coronation Street, Emmerdale and the frequently outstanding News at Ten. Famously, Lygo is a devoted fan of the Street and never misses an episode.

"Soon, streaming as a separate thing will vanish. Everything will be streamed"

“For ITV, it’s terribly important that we appeal to a wider audience than we do through linear-TV. With linear, just with the soaps, we’re hitting 6 million people every night but, largely speaking, they are the same 6 million people,” Lygo explains. “That’s our bread and butter. The sales boys go, ‘Yeah, we’ve banked them.’ But what about those hard-to-reach people, younger people, light viewers.

“We’ve identified many different cohorts, vast numbers of people to target across the range of genres, from drama to factual and acquired.” At its launch on 8 December, ITVX provided 10,000 hours of content and, tellingly, promises at least one new exclusive show will drop every week.

ITV aims to get the service off to a powerful start with several high-end dramas. These include the six-part cold war thriller A Spy Among Friends, starring Damian Lewis and Guy Pearce, the new teen drama Tell Me Everything, period drama The Confessions of Frannie Langton, starring Karla-Simone Spence, Sophie Cookson and Patrick Martins, and Plebs: Soldiers of Rome, a feature-­length special.

“I’m not sure we would have done A Spy Among Friends if we only had the main ITV channel,” says Lygo. “We might have thought ‘Is it a bit BBC One and a half? Is it a sort of Tinker, Tailor world?’ But, for us, that’s the sweet spot of ABC1s, maybe more male. We’ll see. But it feels like a drama that a lot of people who wouldn’t necessarily go to Trigger Point would love.”

Similarly, Tell Me Everything – the whole cast is under 21 – “would not have been commissioned by the main channel because it’s niche. If we’re lucky and it all works, it could be like Skins back in the day.

“The range of what we can commission now is extended and, with it, the range of audiences that we can approach should reflect that,” Lygo emphasises. “The commercial side of the business goes, ‘Great, our reach is extending. We’re getting targeted viewers. We’re getting different sorts of viewers and it’s all additional.’

Tell Me Everything (credit: ITV)

“The content has got to speak louder, be sharper, better and have a bit more surprise about it. It lends itself more, although not exclusively, to the continuing story. Thrillers are obviously the stalwart. But it’s not only that: if you look at which streaming dramas are successful, they are thrillers.”

Intriguingly, ITVX is even including a section devoted to hundreds of hours of anime, not the kind of thing you’d automatically associate with ITV. “Even if the audience is very small,” Lygo explains, “it’s very good for us to approach a group of people who maybe never come to ITV except for the odd entertainment show or sports match.”

One new ITVX show defines what Lygo hopes will be part of X’s appeal, Litvinenko, starring David Tennant as the Russian defector. Among the tens of thousands of hours of archive material available on X is Des, in which Tennant plays serial killer Dennis Nilsen, first shown by ITV in 2020 with an accompanying documentary. “A lot of people haven’t seen Des,” says Lygo. “If you come in for Litvinenko, next to it will be an icon saying, ‘If you like this, you might like Des’, so, with luck, Des gets another lease of life.”

Seven new comedies have been commissioned for ITVX. The genre is notoriously difficult to get right and is expensive. “Of late, ITV has slightly stepped away from making comedies,” he says. “ITVX gives us an opportunity to make some comedies because there isn’t the pressure to get an overnight audience of 4 million viewers.”

He promises a range of comedies: “Mainly scripted but we’ve also got a sketch show using deep-fake technology alongside some more traditional but spikey sitcoms.” Lygo adds: “We can be a bit more relaxed about language,” and be unfazed if the classic, mainstream, older ITV audience doesn’t flock to it. “It’s OK if it doesn’t deliver big figures but is watched by light ITV viewers.”

While the US streamers have infinitely deeper pockets than ITV and can afford to spend more freely on high-end shows, Lygo highlights ITVX’s Britishness and how the hope is that UK audiences will respond to a familiar landscape populated by familiar actors, presenters, and other well-known celebrities; for example, Stephen Fry is fronting a natural history documentary, A Year on Planet Earth, which launches later in December.

"Content has got to speak louder, be sharper and be better"

“If we’ve got a new drama starring Damian Lewis or Vicky McClure you’re going to go, ‘I like this, I know where I am’. I think to see something new yet familiar is quite compelling in a massively fractured and overwhelming marketplace.

“For us, the balance in commissioning is about whether we have got enough that’s new that draws you in. I’m very confident that our recent library, drawn from over the past few years, will still feel fresh. It’s only a repeat if you’ve seen it before.”

The fact that it is free provides another advantage, contends Lygo. “For us, the trump card is that it’s free. During a cost-of-living crisis, and people cancelling their subscriptions, all of this will be available for free, with ads, of course.” To watch ad-free costs £5.99 a month, including BritBox.

He expects the first year of ITVX to be a learning curve as the company discovers what people are coming to the service for, what they watch a lot of and what is likely to keep them on the platform.

The hope is that movies will turn out to be a big draw. At launch, ITVX has 250 films ranging from Hollywood blockbusters like Wonder Woman to older classics such as Reservoir Dogs. “On a main channel, feature films don’t play that well anymore, but they perform well on digital channels like ITV2 and 4,” Lygo explains.

“On a streaming service, we want to attract new people, so we want our MAUs (monthly active users) to double over the next three or four years. We want people to spend more time on ITVX than they did on the Hub.

“Things like movies are great because, if you’re in, you’re in for two hours. As a result, we get the consumption hours up. If you’re watching a big movie, we can tell you what else you might like on the service.” The idea is that word-of-mouth will drive a lot of viewing to ITVX.

On ITV1 (recently rebranded again for the launch of ITVX), the challenge to find cut-through content doesn’t get any easier, which makes the recent triumphant series of I’m a Celebrity… all the more impressive.

A Year on Planet Earth (credit: ITV)

Was even Lygo taken aback by its success? Normally, ratings dip during the series. This didn’t happen, something he attributes to the Matt factor: “People have come back to it after not watching it for years. Or maybe they’ve never watched it, but they heard Matt Hancock was on and he drew them in.”

As for the decision to cast the former health secretary, “You use your gut instinct and years of knowing the show inside out.… Ultimately, why wouldn’t you want a big, controversial, confusing, fascinating figure of the moment in the show?

“It’s not only what the viewers think but how the rest of the cast reacted, which is partly why he went in late. Establish them all together and then chuck him in.”

Whether the Big Brother reboot, due on ITV2 next autumn, can prove to be another reality juggernaut for ITV remains to be seen. “I’ve only had positive responses. I’m thrilled it’s back,” says Lygo. “It is one of the most extraordinary shows ever made. It could be a very important show for driving audiences for us.”

What, then, of his personal viewing favourites, the Street aside? Is there a show on a rival that he covets? If there is, he isn’t saying, although he does confess to enjoying HBO’s Hacks and finally caught up with Call My Agent earlier this year. He also enjoys watching subtitled Scandi noir “because I can detach from it being a work thing”.

Season 1 aside, he doesn’t watch The Crown. “You’ve got to remember, I’ve got to watch a lot of ITV and, because I do adore Coronation Street, that’s three hours a week. When I’m a Celebrity… is on, my life’s over.”

Piers Morgan’s show on TalkTV is another programme he avoids: “Eight o’clock at night? Really? With every­thing that’s ever been made available and a new show every day from one of the streamers that’s cost $20m an hour.

“And with what we’re putting out and the BBC is putting out.… It’s not surprising it’s doing what it’s doing. I sometimes wonder if they should have just done ‘Podcast with Piers’. It would be a lot cheaper.”