TV Cream

It's Saturday Night

128. Getting grief from the papers

 

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One thing the failure of Boys and Girls proved was that there was little point in attempting to surf the zeitgeist on Saturday evenings. The audience was generally one of the broadest around, comprising from the very young to the very old – albeit rather less of the latter than in previous years. The Premiership had demonstrated the folly of aiming at just one part of this audience, and Pop Idol and Friends Like These had succeeded as, while they were modern concepts, Ant and Dec’s old-school charm appealed to the wider audience as well.

If you wanted to get a younger audience tuning in on Saturday night, you also needed to get their parents as well, to ensure the viewing figures were respectable. Take, for example, the performance of Wright Here Wright Now in March 2002. Before Ian Wright had been signed up by the BBC, his first TV vehicle had been Friday Night’s All Wright, a late night chat and entertainment show for ITV. Despite – or perhaps even because of – Wright’s inexperience as a chat show host, the series had proven to be a success, with his natural exuberance shining through and appealing to a young, advertiser-friendly audience.

The BBC pilot, Wright Here Wright Now, took the same chat show format and attempted to relocate it to Saturday teatimes. The idea was to create a ‘party’ atmosphere in the studio, with the in-house BBC celebrity Audley Harrison hanging around at tables and a load of anonymous girls milling around. Amongst this, Wright interviewed people such as Victoria Beckham and, as he’d done in all his interviews for ITV, asked them about how they dealt with the press (the Telegraph’s Giles Smith had remarked about Friday Night’s All Wright, “Wrighty could have his local butcher on there and he would still want to know how he felt about getting grief from the papers”). The show was clearly an attempt to add some credibility and excitement to a Saturday night. And it proceeded to get beaten in the ratings by what was surely about the 633rd screening of 633 Squadron on BBC2. There was no series.

This proved that if there was a time to innovate on television, it was not at half past six on a Saturday evening. Reality shows such as Big Brother may have been taking up an increasingly large amount of airtime, but not so far on Saturday nights. ITV’s first attempt at this kind of programming, the hugely expensive flop that was Survivor, further illustrated this. If reality television was going to become a part of the Saturday schedule, it had to be rather less intense and easier to get into.

Suddenly ITV found the answer. During 2002, a series had been rumoured that was dubbed Celebrity Survivor which, based on the original series, seemed to be a terrible idea. In fact the finished programme, which launched that September, had nothing to do with the pretentious, big budget reality flop, and was made by a completely different production team at LWT. I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here! saw a handful of game celebrities dumped in the jungle, but also installed Ant and Dec to take the piss out of their antics, and set up daily ‘Bush Tucker Trials’ that were basically an excuse to get the participants eating grubs or putting their hands into buckets full of snakes. Overall, it was just an enjoyable romp, and really wasn’t all that different from the light entertainment shows of the past – simply famous people doing daft things.

The success of the show –  both critically and commercially – took everyone by surprise, and generated acres of column inches in the press. ITV had stumbled upon a light entertainment hit and, buoyed by this, decided that the most obvious next step was to give all the participants lots of screen time. The thinking, was that since so many people had watched Tony Blackburn in the jungle, they must all like Tony Blackburn, so the veteran DJ found himself presenting virtually every light entertainment show that needed a host, alongside his fellow survivors, such as Tara Palmer-Tomkinson. Even Rhona Cameron, who a few years previously was drawing a tiny audience for her BBC2 sitcom, now found herself hosting big budget ITV light entertainment.

In time ITV’s reliance on this show would become rather tiresome, whether it was watching Tara Palmer-Tomkinson battle with the autocue on another clip show, or Tony Blackburn appearing to crack a few funnies while taking part in Celebrities Under Pressure. Even Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway was unable to go more than a few minutes without some sort of reference, visual or musical, to the reality show. It was a bit ludicrous – would John Fashanu have been considered as the obvious choice to present a Saturday night ITV show before his appearance on I’m A Celebrity? Eventually the novelty wore off, with Fash’s contest Man vs Beast – based on an American format where humans took on animals – dropped from the schedules at the last minute in November 2003 and never screened.

Nevertheless, the success of I’m A Celebrity proved that reality television could work on a Saturday night, albeit tailored towards the mainstream audience. So while the jungle-based series had succeeded thanks to the presence of celebrities and its tongue firmly in its cheek, perhaps something like Big Brother could be a Saturday night hit if the concept was refined to include enough light entertainment aspects.

Judgement Day was produced by Endemol UK, the independent production company responsible for Big Brother, and as their boss Peter Bazalgette confirmed, the programme was an attempt to distil the whole ethos of that show into an hour. Based in a studio, five contestants would put themselves on public display and, after a series of rounds, get whittled down one-by-one based on the studio audience deciding which one they liked the least. The first hopeful found themselves summarily dispatched after simply walking on stage, while those who progressed had to endure host Brian Conley snooping around their houses in an attempt to garner more information about them.

Judgement Day debuted as part of a completely revamped Saturday evening schedule on ITV on 28 June 2003. At 6.15pm was the first of a series of documentaries starring Aussie nature expert Steve Irwin, Judgement Day followed at 7.15 and then at 8.15 was the start of a new series of The Vault with new host Melanie Sykes. The evening was rounded off with the bizarre one-off Drop The Celebrity where various micro-stars (Cheryl Baker! Garry Bushell!) took part in a pointless quiz-cum-parachute jump. ITV clearly didn’t expect enormous viewing figures as it was the height of summer, but it was hoped that these low-cost shows would keep things ticking over until Pop Idolwas back.

When the ITV executives returned from the weekend, they found that things had not gone quite as planned. Saturday’s overall share of the audience was just 16.5% – what was thought to be its lowest ever for a single day ever (the previous low had been in September 2001, when BBC1 had screened live coverage of Germany vs England, leaving ITV with just 18.6% of viewers). The figures for 28 June were distorted by a major sporting event – in this case, Tim Henman playing at Wimbledon, which BBC1 stayed with until 8pm that evening, some three hours later than planned. Yet however you looked at it, the ratings were disastrous – the fourth consecutive Saturday when ITV had recorded a sub-20% share.

Conley’s first show had attracted 3.3 million viewers, less than half as many than those who were watching the tennis at the same time. Yet after the tennis finished, ITV performed even more poorly, with The Vault recording three million viewers, and Drop The Celebrity 3.1 million. The latter was perhaps the most embarrassing of all, as the Wimbledon coverage had finished and BBC1 were killing time with unscheduled repeats of Only Fools and Horses and The Vicar of Dibley while they got back to their published listings. ITV kept a brave face, however, saying the Wimbledon coverage had affected all channels, and that there was also “extremely good weather which always reduces TV audiences. It was a blip, not a trend.”

The next Saturday, the schedule found itself opposite BBC1’s more usual light entertainment fare, and inevitably enough Judgement Day’s audience actually decreased still further to 3.1 million. This clearly couldn’t go on, and ITV announced the show was being immediately dropped from the schedules, to be replaced by old films. The commercial channel’s statement, which also confirmed the dumping of Sunday night drama Fortysomething, announced, “These are good shows which unfortunately haven’t found their feet in their current slots. It’s something all channels have to deal with in this highly competitive environment.” While nobody, Conley aside, was really that upset about the series going, what was perhaps most bizarre was that The Vault, which had actually achieved the lowest audience on that fateful night, carried on regardless, and at the end of the run even managed to get a recommission.

Such swift cancellations led to, as usual, much fretting over the future of Saturday night light entertainment. BBC Director general Greg Dyke was quoted at the time as saying, “It would be nice to have a new entertainment show on Saturday nights which could pick up between eight and 10 million viewers. That’s not there at the moment, and it is a priority for us to get that right.” Despite ITV’s public failures, things weren’t going that well for the BBC either, with the lousy Meet My Folks – a high-concept piece where parents selected partners for their offspring – being shelved mid-run a few weeks earlier. One BBC executive was quoted in The Observer as saying, “There has never been a period of nervousness like this. The stakes are very high and there is not much clarity about what is wanted, comedy or game shows.”

Less than three months later, ITV rejigged their Saturday night schedules at short notice again. This time the unfortunate series was Design Wars, one of the station’s more curious commissions. Again the format owed a lot to successful shows on other channels. The series was based around a set of suburban houses, each of which were being overhauled by interior designers of a different nationality. We could watch their exploits every night of the week, and on Saturday night there’d be ‘evictions’ of those who had done the least impressive job. A blend of Changing Rooms and Pop Idol, this rather stupid format (who cared which country produced the best designer?) was yanked out of prime time after two weeks, the grand finale going out at the auspicious hour of 5pm on Monday afternoon.

By this time Pop Idol was back in the schedules. The second series was no doubt welcomed back with open arms by ITV, not least because the series lasted five months and so guaranteed a large audience for half the year. Indeed, to ensure the series finished by Christmas, the first programme actually went out on 9 August, the hottest day of the year. No longer were the broadcasters content to more or less bide time during the summer – only 10 years after the BBC had, it was rumoured, admitted it could no longer put together a proper schedule all year round.

In fact, 9 August saw a bizarre battle between two of the most hyped and most expensive light entertainment shows of the year. In the autumn of 2002, while ITV had shown Popstars: The Rivals on Saturday nights, 24 hours earlier BBC1 had run Fame Academy. This was a rather more worthy, BBC take on the pop talent show, with much more of an emphasis on all round musical talent and songwriting skills – in the hope that they would find long-lasting musicians rather than flash-in-the-pan trends. Early episodes of the series were shambolic – judge Richard Park claiming after the first show that he would have given it “five out of a hundred” for musical aptitude – and it seemed to be the scapegoat for every critic who wanted to put the boot into reality shows. But by the end of the run, it had picked up a loyal audience, and the success of a celebrity version for Comic Relief in early 2003 meant a second series was soon confirmed.

The problem came in the scheduling. The BBC announced that Friday night was now comedy night, and it was no longer appropriate for that slot. This meant that the only suitable day was Saturday, which saw it pitched into a head-to-head battle with Pop Idol. It was said that the commitment to the lottery and Casualty confined it to a teatime slot. Fame Academy began its second run at the end of July, and then two weeks later its first encounter with Pop Idol took place. Generally Fame Academy would start 10 minutes or so before Pop Idol, but it still meant the audience had to commit to one or the other. Of course, neither channel acknowledged the existence of their rival shows, but on the first night of the clash Fame Academy dispensed with opening and closing credits and linked directly into the lottery show, to ensure there were no obvious points to switch over.

This clash did nobody any favours – it split the audience and made the BBC look arrogant. It could have been argued, however, that the two shows were very different and thus appealed to different audiences … until you actually saw the new Fame Academy. One of the major criticisms of the first series was that the format had been somewhat confusing, with the ‘teachers’ nominating three pupils for eviction each week, with the rest of the programme devoted to what the rest of the students had come up with. For the second series, this was dramatically simplified – everyone was now up for eviction every week, and hence everyone performed looking for the viewer’s vote. The over-the-top setting of the first series was also dropped, with the action relocating to the Academy itself – a cramped environment with the audience and judges all crammed in. This meant there was little the contestants could do except stand there and sing. What we had, of course, was son of Pop Idol.

This rather slavish copying of the rival show extended the telephone numbers, which ludicrously had just one digit different to Pop Idol. There seemed to be no reason to watch Fame Academy because Pop Idol was doing the same thing at the same time on the other side. It was perhaps unfortunate as there was a great deal more variety in the type of music and contestant that took part in Fame Academy – most notably the winner, Alex Parks, who was a world away from the bland characters who had entered Popstars: The Rivals – yet there seemed to be a desperation to be as much like the opposition as possible.

The other major flaw with the new Fame Academy came with the presentation. Patrick Kielty was the host, as he had been for the first series, and was responsible for soliciting the opinions from the judges after each performance. However somewhere along the line, there seemed to be a complete breakdown in relations between Kielty and Richard Park. As with Nigel Lythgoe and Simon Cowell, Park had garnered a reputation for speaking frankly about the merits of the contestants, which often meant a negative review. It appeared, though, that Kielty seemed to take his comments as a personal affront and would often answer back or laugh off the criticism. What may have started as good-natured banter collapsed into sheer hatred and nastiness between the pair, reaching a nadir when Kielty began to talk over Park, and Park let out a furious “Oi!” at such force that you felt blows were about to be exchanged. It never got quite that bad, but it was almost always hugely unpleasant to watch. For his part, Park seemed to be getting more irascible and harshly critical by the week.

Meanwhile, Ant and Dec seemed to be having a whale of a time over on Pop Idol, where despite Simon Cowell’s reputation, the execution was good-natured enough to ensure it always stayed entertaining. There just didn’t seem to be any purpose to Fame Academy existing – what on earth was being achieved from a Pop Idol rip-off being scheduled opposite Pop Idol? It must be said, however, that the more exposed slot and the bizarre nature of some of Kielty and Park’s sparring did actually generate substantially more publicity than the first run. However a third series seemed unlikely to follow.

The BBC that had lost its way on Saturday nights again. Alongside Fame Academy was a new series that shared the same worthy-but-dull ethos. Previously Soapstars had attempted to apply the talent search to a different field, but it hadn’t worked very well on screen as acting hadn’t been as easy to shoehorn into the format as singing. What was needed was a discipline where it was easy to see who had talent – so why not Sportstars?

Born To Win brought together talented young people who were already excelling in different sports and attempted to find which one had the most all-round talent. Sally Gunnell and Colin Jackson were the ‘mentors’ who set a different set of challenges each week, and they’d also decide on who would be ‘evicted’ at the end of each show. So far, so obvious, but as before, sport was too abstract a concept to fit nicely into a packaged format, and it seemed rather pointless to judge, say, a footballer and an athlete the same way as both had different talents. One other flaw was the overall prize. With the music shows it was obvious that the winner would be rewarded with a recording contract, but what could the winner of Born To Win get? In the end host Dermot O’Leary had to talk up … a bursary. Not quite the sort of thing dreams are made of.

So how would the BBC innovate next? The answer came from a direction nobody was expecting …

Next Monday: I’m so pleased to be back on television

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