Why do Ant and Dec matter so much to ITV?

…and what can the broadcaster do to stave off the current crisis? Ben Dowell gives the lowdown on the Geordie duo

Ant and Dec Saturday Night Takeaway (ITV Pictures, JG)

In August last year ITV’s director of programmes Kevin Lygo was asked at the Edinburgh Television festival what he was going to do about Ant and Dec.

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There had just been a crisis. Ant McPartlin had been admitted to rehab and had spoken publicly about his addiction issues. But a new series of I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! was slated for November that year. Would Ant be appearing, Lygo was asked by interviewer Lauren Laverne?

“How very dare you!” replied Lygo, barley catching breath – the speed of his amused answer causing the audience of TV executives to laugh. “Ant is doing really well and we’re expecting him to return to I’m a Celebrity, so we won’t be resting it.”

Asked by Laverne if Ant was irreplaceable, he said simply: “Yes.”

He’s not wrong. The duo have meant a lot to ITV for more than 20 years now, ever since they were first signed to present SM:TV Live and CD:UK in 1998 from which they quickly went on to become the face of ITV entertainment, replacing some of the old school variety faces that still lingered around the channel’s roster.

Now their current deal earns them a reputed £30m over three years for work on top-rated shows I’m a Celebrity and Britain’s Got Talent.

There are a number of keys to their success. They are smart hard-working professionals – no one doubts that. They have won heaps of awards and have been at the heart of the network’s schedule, remaining fresh and appealing over decades.

Let’s not forget that their double act was formed nearly 30 years ago when Dec landed the role of Duncan in children’s drama Byker Grove, McPartlin’s PJ joining the show a year later. Their longevity is an extraordinary achievement – arguably unmatched in modern British TV – and it’s little wonder McPartlin’s unavailability for the foreseeable future has put ITV in such disarray.

One reason for their appeal, according to someone who has known them for years, is the “astute way they have marketed themselves – likeable, funny, ideal young men really, the perfect sons to many of ITV’s older viewers.”

The friend adds: “Most double acts have assigned roles – the straight one and the funny one, the mad one and the straight one. Ant and Dec are almost unique in the history of British light entertainment about refusing to be pegged. Think of your favourite Ant and Dec moments – sometimes Ant is playing the fool, sometimes it’s Dec larking about. It’s very studied and always surprising. It allows them to remain incredibly versatile, incredibly fresh.”

This reasoning suggests that recent calls from the likes of agent Jonathan Shalit and presenter Piers Morgan that Dec should go it alone are unwise.

The friend adds: “They have always vowed never to work without the other anyway – and their togetherness is a key part of their appeal.”

It is also worth remembering that both are rumoured to have insured the life of the other to the tune of “six figures”.

Saturday Night Takeaway will come off air for one episode, but Dec has vowed to present the final two instalments of the series solo. “Everyone at ITV and the Takeaway team feels we owe it to the audience to complete the series,” he has said in what many regard as a masterstroke of PR – show the audience that they are being put first, even in these dark times. But it seems unlikely that Dec will want to carry on by himself in the long term.

As another TV insider puts it: “Ant and Dec have almost single handedly kept ITV’s share price afloat – that’s a slight exaggeration of course but they have been so crucial to ITV. You could say for too long.

Ant and Dec at the NTA Awards, Getty, SL
Ant and Dec at the NTA Awards, Getty, SL

“That’s what is so damaging about this current story. Ant’s public problems have hit the image of the likeable family-friendly man. This will take a lot to recover.”

And while it’s clear why they have remained so pre-eminent, the question remains: are Ant and Dec really irreplaceable?

Certainly, events suggest that ITV doesn’t have many options, at least not at the moment.

Mark Borkowski, the public relations expert, believes that a lack of talent waiting in the wings is a big problem for ITV.

“The talent pool of top notch presenters is so small and Ant and Dec are so good at their jobs but there is no one else who can take their place,” he says. “Who else could step into their shoes? It’s hard to imagine anyone. They are a cash cow for the advertisers and that is why they are worked hard and so they are knackered. They have worked so hard and it’s really tough. The vortex of fame is a thing people don’t understand and may struggle to sympathise with. But it’s real.

“It’s gruelling being in the public eye, being followed, having your every move scrutinised, social media dogging you 24 hours a day. I feel for the bloke.”

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It’s hard to disagree. And perhaps if ITV had given more time to finding their successors the channel wouldn’t be in quite the mess it now finds itself in. But one reason they matter so much – and are so popular – is that there really is only one Ant and Dec.