Carlton needs more than a new image to pull itself from the mire

The intense criticism of Carlton after its recent controversial royalty debate has indicated the depth of the company’s problems. By Torin Douglas. Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC Radio

Carlton UK Television has denied a newspaper report that it plans to rename its Central TV subsidiary “Carlton Midlands”. After last week’s great monarchy debate, a more pertinent question might be whether it should do the reverse and rename Carlton “Central”.

For despite the group’s best efforts, the name Carlton is still more of a liability than an asset. Carlton-bashing has become a sport – particularly in certain newspapers – and the monarchy programme has spectacularly reinforced that position: “MPs attack Carlton over bad-tempered show…”; “Ire erupts over Carlton’s phone-in extravaganza”.

It is no mean feat to unite against you such a diverse group as Sir Bernard Ingham, Sir Robin Day, Sir Paul Fox, Ann Leslie, Andrew Neil, Claire Rayner, Terry Waite, assorted Tory MPs and a Home Office minister Tom Sackville, who was reported as saying: “Carlton has shown yet again that it is unfit to run a major TV franchise. It is dragging standards into the gutter in the way Murdoch did in the Eighties.”

To criticise not just the almighty Murdoch but Carlton, the main beneficiary of the Conservatives’ franchise auction, suggests Sackville is either a minister of unusually independent mind or he does not believe he or his party will be in office for long.

Yet his comments only emphasise the seriousness of the problem. Perhaps most wounding of all the articles to the company’s founder Michael Green, was in The Telegraph headed “Carlton man who carries the can”.

It began: “Final responsibility for Tuesday’s night’s fiasco rests with Michael Green, the head of Carlton TV. Although he has always strived to create the impression that he is too lofty to concern himself with the programming details, he is acutely sensitive to criticism that Carlton has built a reputation for the low calibre of its programmes.”

This is confirmed in Ray Snoddy’s biography of him, Greenfinger: “When the Spectator television critic James Delingpole in May 1996 attacked the costume drama Sharpe and asserted that Carlton programme-makers were interested only ‘in appealing to the lowest common denominator’, Green replied personally. The piece had been ‘one of the most ill-informed, biased and frankly bigoted reviews I can remember reading’. It was all part of the British disease to attack anything ‘new’ in television, and particularly any ‘new’ company coming into the industry, he wrote.”

Green hasn’t written to defend the monarchy debate. In The Telegraph it was left to Andy Allan, Carlton’s director of programmes, who replied robustly: “Tuesday’s programme was certainly boisterous” he wrote. “A red-blooded affair that was never going to satisfy those who prefer the atmosphere of a televised seminar… I’m proud of my team and delighted that Carlton gave the people an opportunity to speak this week.”

The irony is that while the Carlton name dominated pre-programme publicity (the MORI poll released a few days before transmission was widely described as a poll for Carlton), the programme was actually made by Central, a fact buried in a line at the bottom of a press release.

I suspect this was because Carlton believed the programme was going to reflect well on it. Linked with its ambitious production of Rebecca, shown over the previous two nights, Carlton hoped the debate would help it start 1997 with a bang, its reputation enhanced.

As it was, Rebecca received mixed reviews and Carlton ended the week with everyone reminded of the image it wanted them to forget.

Can it repair the damage? It is now four years since it displaced Thames, widely regarded as ITV’s programme power-house, yet its newspaper image is as bad as ever. Two years ago, cynics suggested that, having failed to produce any programmes to match Thames’s, it had bought a company that could – namely Central, responsible for Inspector Morse, Soldier Soldier, Sharpe and Peak Practice, all of which were soon proudly bearing the Carlton logo.

Carlton is now producing strong dramas of its own, such as Bramwell – and classy children’s programmes like The Treasure Seekers. The Independent Television Commission has acknowledged its output is improving. Yet it remains best known for its less wholesome productions, such as The Good Sex Guide, and, from now on presumably, Monarchy – The Nation Decides. So what can Carlton do?

In corporate identity terms, it has been blurring the edges between Carlton Communications, Carlton UK Television and the various subsidiaries, Carlton Broadcasting, Central Broadcasting and Carlton UK Productions. So no one would have been surprised if last week’s Observer story suggesting Central was to be renamed “Carlton Midlands” (and Westcountry “Carlton South West”) had been true.

Yet Carlton firmly denies it saying that, if anything, it will be doing more to build on the strength of the Central name in the Midlands, where its regional news service is very successful. Given the negative image of Carlton, that would seem sensible.

So, if any name is to be changed, should it be Carlton itself? There is no shortage of organisations that have got rid of names that became an embarrassment, from Ratners and Windscale to Saatchi & Saatchi. Yet it is inconceivable that Green would abandon his company’s name in TV, the highest-profile area of his business.

So let him take heart from a company that changed its reputation, rather than its name. Tesco was for decades identified with the policy of “pile it high and sell it cheap”. Not any more.

But before it could change its reputation, it had to improve its performance.

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