So Peter Fincham is leaving ITV and the man replacing him as director of television is Kevin Lygo – a well-liked and maverick TV personality, popular with programme makers and someone who is always said to be unafraid to take risks. But what is he expected to deliver at ITV?
It’s not an easy job: the commercial network is in fairly poor shape at the moment, creatively speaking at any rate. Profits are steady but its share of viewers is declining on the main channel (its overall share is being boosted by its digital offerings like ITV and ITV Be). Only this Sunday, Endeavour dropped to a series low against BBC1’s joint attack of Call the Midwife and War and Peace.
And if you talk to programme makers and commissioners on the coalface, they will say the same thing: it is increasingly hard to ”break through” (a word you hear a lot) with smash hit programmes of the kind ITV needs.
In autumn it lost the rights to the Uefa Champions League which guaranteed big audiences. Downton Abbey also bowed out last year.
Erstwhile ratings banker The X Factor struggled in the lead up to Christmas, having recorded repeatedly record low figures while its main Saturday night rival Strictly Come Dancing had a bumper year. Nearly 12 million viewers watched Jay McGuinness lift the Strictly Glitterball trophy on BBC1, while the first half of the X Factor final recorded fewer than 6 million viewers according to overnight figures. Fincham says he chose to leave voluntarily but it seems likely that ITV will be welcoming new blood and a fresh injection of ideas.
The 58-year-old Lygo (pictured, below), currently ITV Studios managing director, is a different beast from Fincham, who has been at ITV for eight years. Fincham joined ITV after resigning from the BBC for his role in the infamous ‘Queen-gate” controversy, when it was falsely claimed that the monarch walked out of a BBC photoshoot.
In public, Lygo strikes a much more relaxed personality than the man he is taking over from. Much less afraid to speak his mind, his arrival has been broadly welcomed by ITV insiders.
“Kevin is more of a laugh,” is the verdict of one senior television figure who has worked with him for a number of years. “And he knows his comedy. He is also someone who trusts programme makers”.
He certainly knows his comedy, having cut his teeth in TV for the BBC as a script writer on The Two Ronnies. But it was at Channel 4 (which he joined in 1997) that his skill at the genre was most realised, and he counts among his early programme successes shows like TFI Friday and cult Simon Pegg comedy Spaced.
Other Channel 4 successes include Smack the Pony, So Graham Norton and Dom Joly’s prank-fest Trigger Happy TV. Following a brief two-year spell at Channel 5 he returned to C4 where he earned the distinction of being the man who commissioned Big Brother.
Obviously these are not all the kind of shows that would sit well on ITV, but one area where the channel is badly in need of a creative rejuvenation is scripted comedy, a genre that has simply failed to make the grade on the network.
ITV comedies like The Job Lot (starring Russell Tovey) and bold (but not terribly funny) sitcom Vicious (with Sir Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi) haven’t rated as well as they might, and they haven’t been critical successes by any stretch either.
“Viewers don’t simply see ITV as a destination for comedy,” adds another executive. “And that has to change.”
Lygo will need to get big rating, talked-about drama series on air to match Fincham successes like Downton Abbey and the first series of Broadchurch. Also, he will need to decide how ITV is to position The Voice, the BBC1 talent show which ITV have acquired and are expected to show in January 2017.
Lygo is likely to want an ITV that shores up its ratings with an almost year-round crop of reality show big guns, with The X Factor, I’m a Celebrity and Britain’s Got Talent doing the heavy lifting ratings work. But will that be enough?
Another big decision Lygo will have to make is what to do with Simon Cowell. Would The X Factor benefit from taking a year off the airwaves, as some have suggested? Could ITV afford to do this? Would Cowell let him?
Lygo is also unusual in that he has a wide-ranging “hinterland” of interests outside TV. He studied music at Durham University, and after quitting the BBC left TV for seven years to work in France as a dealer in Islamic art.
Clearly he has a keen eye for creative endeavour, whether in the art gallery or the TV studio. But whether it will be enough to bring ITV out of the doldrums in the face of competition – not just from BBC1, Sky 1 and Channel 4, but from on demand suppliers like Amazon and Netflix – remains to be seen. It’s not going to be an easy job.