The road to ITV’s recovery 

18 September 2010

To celebrate the 50th birthday of Coronation Street, BBC Four showed an excellent docudrama called “The Road to Coronation Street“.


[For UK readers, it’s available on here on BBC iPlayer until the end of this week]

It was superbly acted, well directed and the writer had set the ideal pace for a modern drama looking back at old events: quick enough for the modern viewer’s attention not to wander, slow enough to let us bask in the quality of the show.

Social networking sites caught light afterwards – as they do after any major drama, to be honest – with people praising the performances and the writing. But many of the Tweets, updates and emails asked one of two questions: “Why didn’t ITV make this?” and “Why wasn’t this on ITV?”

The first question is, of course, based on the wrong premise that a show on the BBC has to be made by the BBC. In this case, The Road to Coronation Street was made by ITV Studios, as their weird is-it-a-stomach-is-it-an-embryo logo at the end showed. ITV Studios is what we once called Granada, so it was not only made by ITV but by Coronation Street‘s own company.

The second question is harder to answer: there’s not the space in ITV’s schedules for a 75 minute drama (it’d be, what, an hour and a half, an hour and three quarters with adverts? Not very useful for a pretty tight schedule) and cutting it down would have done it an injustice. There’s also /when/ it would go in the schedules to consider: it needs a prime evening slot, but none of ITV’s evenings seem to suit: Saturday is populist (and popular) dross; Sunday is continuing series, Monday is soapy “continuing drama”, Tuesday is reality, Wednesday is murders, Thursday is murders, Friday is live stuff. I’m writing this from memory, so I can’t say it’s fully accurate, but it gives the gist.

Ideally, it would go on ITV3, if ITV3 was on-screen what it would seem to be on paper. But ITV’s three daughter channels have never lived up to the grand schemes planned for them, perhaps because their mission statements were written by the marketing department for the advertisers to read, rather than starting from the more logical base of “what would the viewers like to watch?”. So ITV3 is out. ITV2 sometimes does bits of drama, but ITV2’s odd demographic (get ’em young, get ’em cheaply, get this stuff we’ve just shown back on air so we can consolidated the viewing figures) doesn’t really allow for The Road to appear. And since even ITV4 doesn’t know what ITV4 is for, that rules out the whole family.

Of course, you can make all of these arguments about the BBC: why was this excellent drama ghettoised on BBC Four (because BBC Four isn’t a ghetto, comes the I-wish-it-were-true cry in reply) and why was it on a Thursday (better than a Friday or a Saturday in viewer numbers, up against some nasty competition on Sunday, a general lack of punch on a Monday; you’re pretty well stuck with Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, and Thursday is the best of them).

But there was a note of pain in the social media posts about The Road. A general feeling of, what, betrayal? People, it seems, want ITV to be the type of channel that makes stuff like this, and to be the type of channel that shows it. In fact, people remember when it did both. It stopped doing it over a couple of years and the middle class, ABC1 audience (who anyways always felt a little bit like they were slumming it by watch ITV in the days before multichannel slums) drifted away. That’s me, for instance.

The sight of one of the best dramas of the year, made by ITV about an ITV institution and made with a panache that ITV always used to have, going out on BBC Four: it hurt. It reminded me that ITV had turned its back on me a few years ago. If other people like me still watched, it was for the slummy stuff (X Factor and the soaps) without the sugar-coating of the high-quality stuff later in the evening, the Granada and LWT (and sometimes Anglia and Thames) hour-long dramas and serials of the past.

This all shows what a tough job the new ITV top management have got in front of them. The betrayed viewers, like me, probably won’t come back for top-quality drama now – I won’t trust ITV to do it well, despite the clear evidence that they can. Something needs to be done now, ready for when the public get bored with the talent shows (and they will; and when they do, they’ll be gone in an eye-blink and hard to get back – plan now or be left flailing).

The daughter channels are a painful Cinderella network; ill-defined and ill-differentiated from each other, they neither attract nor repel but simply blend into the whole Sky1/2/3-Living-Five pile of wallpaper channels that seem to exist simply to fill spaces near the top of the EPG. Something needs to be done to make each channel a destination in its own right, with an audience of its own and a patch on the EPG to defend.

And finally, something needs to be done with ITV’s scheduling. The schedule at the moment is stable, after a couple of years of awkward flux, but that stability is starting to look like complacency. It’s good that I can remember what’s on ITV most nights without looking (weekdays: soaps 7pm-9pm, then continuing, reality, murders, murders, live) but what’s there isn’t very inspiring. That’s the hardest job, because it means taking a gamble on new commissions – something that commercial channels dread. Feel the fear and do it anyway, ITV: you’ve already proved that you’ve got the talent available to make it work.

I’ll next (consciously, sometimes my barber has it on, but that doesn’t really count) watch ITV for the 50th anniversary week of Coronation Street. That’s not enough time for the new management to have changed much. But I really, really like to see that, perhaps, they’ve tried to welcome me back.

You Say

4 responses to this article

Mike Durnin 18 September 2010 at 5:24 pm

ITV1 is successful in its own terms already. It continues to give BBC1 a run for its money with the doublebanking of Corrie on weekdays and X-Factor on weekends. The BBC only wins a place in the top 10 with EastEnders and Doctor Who.

David Hastings 19 September 2010 at 2:38 pm

ITV may superfically appear to be doing well, but if you discount the soaps and Simon Cowell shows then there are still significant problems with the schedule. New format Millionaire hasn’t exactly set the world alight, Law and Order is in danger of bombing, plus new reality format 71 Degrees North has just shed 1.8m viewers. (And those are just three examples.)

Anything scheduled after X Factor in theory should get a healthy viewer inheritance but instead the viewing figure usually drops like a stone regardless of what’s being shown – brand loyality for ITV1 seems to have evaporated with viewers tuning in for Simon Cowell but switching off again afterwards.

Last Friday’s QI on BBC One got 4.4m viewers when shown opposite Coronation Street, which illustrates that it’s perfectly possible to have “mass market” television that doesn’t treat the viewer like a semi-literate moron. Jimmy Mulville’s speech at the recent Edinburgh Television Festival is well worth perusing as well.

Also to add insult to injury, the first outing of The Road to Coronation Street on BBC Four got 852,000 viewers; the same or slightly higher than last week’s average viewing figure for the much-hyped Daybreak on ITV1 (0.8m). Ouch.

ITV could show The Road to Coronation Street on ITV1 in the afternoon instead of yet another Bond film; they might just be taken back by the viewer response it gets.

Ford (Road) Granada 27 September 2010 at 9:16 pm

Let’s not get too tied up in why ITV didn’t show it. They didn’t show it because BBC4 commissioned ITV Studios to make it (and on the subject of that logo, surely it’s a pound sign!). If they had, it wouldn’t have been 75 minutes, it’d be two hours, or possibly one hour (with ads). It’s the same situation as when you get people writing into Points of View bemoaning a particularly good series being shown in daytime – because that was always where it was meant to be. And despite all this, I do have the sneaking suspicion the 50th anniversary of Coronation Street will be marked on ITV1…!

Equally, it would never have gone on any of the spin-off channels. Despite some of the bluster these have always been low budget beasts. Any comparison with the BBC family of channels isn’t like-for-like. ITV3 – the most likely home of the programme – was set up entirely to show old repeats with very, very few new commissions (so maybe it’ll turn up for the 60th!). And let’s not get too saintly about this show being on the Beeb – it’s timing, some two-and-a-half months before the actual anniversary, was clearly to promote Jessie Wallace’s return to EastEnders the day after the broadcast (and to be fair, as seen, she can do a bloody good job when she puts her mind to it).

I’d argue the ITV1 schedule is actually anything but complacent as there’s so much room for movement in it. Look back just a few years and pretty much every slot between 7 and 9pm on weekdays was locked up by soaps, with Tonight and regional progs in the EastEnders slots. Sundays were even worse, with the soaps/Yorksire-based returning drama/Frosty-Morsey type drama hogging a whole four hours most of the year.

There is so much space for new ideas now that there wasn’t previously. Finding them is taking time, but it’s getting there. Weekends are unashamedly entertainment based (it was good enough for LWT…) with a number of modest hits even outisde of X Factor. The drama output also seems to have finally turned a corner and has thrown a few well-received hits of late.

As someone who has been heavily critical of the output – but has been immersed in it for the last five years (!) – I can honestly say it has improved tenfold recently, as has the management attitude towards it. I only wish we could leave the script of the late nineties behind. There’s enough repeats as it is…!

Glenn Aylett 15 November 2010 at 8:01 pm

Firstly I enjoyed this drama, but secondly is ITV1 ( I’ll discount the digital channels as they are just moving wallpaper created to add a few per cent to ITV plc’s audience share) so bad as it was a few years ago. Downton Abbey, Whitechapel, A Bouquet of Barbed Wire prove the station can still make decent drama and no doubt the huge success of DA has led to another series being commissioned. Remember this was the channel where such dross as Celebrity Love Island, Soapstar Superstar and the Coronation St Family Album were main highights of the schedule a few years ago and drama was being sacrificed for reality shows featuring Z list celebs.

I won’t admit ITV 1 somehow is perfect, but it is on the way back from the basket case it had become in the dog days of Charles Allen’s reign. Also senior management are finally admitting the wholesale move downmarket in the 00s has cost them viewers and revenue

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