What are the most difficult television programmes to produce? Unexpectedly perhaps it’s the most popular ones. Anyone who has tried to organise a night out amongst a few friends knows how hard it is to get everyone to agree on any aspect of it. Producing a popular hit TV show is the same but involves trying to satisfy millions of people all at once, week after week. Perhaps hardest of all is creating big successful Saturday-night shows of the shiny floor variety; you can probably count the number of new hits made in the last ten years on the fingers of one hand. Yet there remains a prevailing snobbery around them.
ITV’s beautifully made ratings blockbuster Downton Abbey always seemed to me to commit the sin of being slightly too popular; it can’t be that good if everyone likes it. And maybe BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing wouldn’t draw quite so much critical irritation if it wasn’t so huge.
During my career I have commissioned Daytime, Entertainment and Comedy programmes for the BBC and was responsible for launching Dragons’ Den, The Apprentice and Have I Got News For You. While poor imitations have come and gone, these shows continue to attract a large audience because they are original and brilliantly produced.
There is a huge amount of snobbery around daytime television. I have never understood why an activity that is feted with awards and miles of newspaper inches becomes something to be embarrassed about when it takes place during the day. Bargain Hunt and Escape to the Country are among the many daytime series I commissioned and far from being ashamed, I am proud I was able to nurture such enduringly popular shows.
However despite its success, recently broadcasting’s bureaucrats and politicians have reserved their harshest words for daytime television, using it as an easy scapegoat to criticise the BBC. In all probability, they have never watched it, so when they start demanding shows are scrapped because they have been on a long time and worse, are popular, I have to ask why. Interestingly we don’t hear the same demands of the very brilliant 47-year-old Question Time, or Casualty, which has just hit 1,000 episodes after 30 years.
When deciding which shows to commission, the phrase “my time well spent” was my benchmark. Would our audience feel entertained, respected and surprised by the breadth and quality of our shows? In the days when Who Wants to be a Millionaire? was busting all audience records, I wanted to find a show that was equally surprising and original. We piloted several but the one that stopped us in our tracks was Weakest Link with Anne Robinson. My bosses loved Anne’s pilot, but asked: could I find another presenter who was less outspoken? We stuck to our guns and Weakest Link became a global hit allowing reinvestment to fund more programming.
“Distinctiveness” is not a term I am comfortable using, but you could certainly claim Weakest Link was distinctive. Much bandied about by politicians, the word was mentioned no less than 50 times in the recent White Paper on the BBC. But what does it mean? That the BBC should plug the gaps left in the schedules of commercial broadcasters? Or perhaps create shows that aren’t vulgarly popular? Rarely mentioned by the politicians is you, the viewer – the only person who truly matters. From the niche to the entertainment juggernauts, the BBC must please us all. But hindsight is everything and no-one can predict what is going to be popular.
When word got out that I had commissioned a Saturday primetime show with ballroom dancing, there was much sniggering. If television were left to the snobs, Strictly Come Dancing would never have happened.