ITV is about to enter the unmapped territory of leisure and lifestyle programmes in its never-ending search for big peaktime audiences.
Programmes about cookery, do-it-yourself, gardening, travel and cars have been traditional fodder for minority channels such as BBC2 because they were never seen as crowd pleasers. For years the only peaktime ITV show in this mould was the holiday programme Wish You Were Here, which grew up alongside the boom in package holidays.
But for the first time, the factual entertainment show is showing promise as a hot ITV property because of two related phenomena which have changed the channel’s programming culture.
The first has been the rise of popular factual series in peaktime. Dubbed “docusoaps”, series such as Airline and the “From Hell” strand have been central to ITV’s strategy over the past year to boost its slipping market share. David Liddiment, director of programmes at the ITV Network Centre, made it one of his first priorities to copy what the BBC was already doing and put these series about real life into the heart of the schedule.
One of the first people he poached was Grant Mansfield. Former managing editor of network features at the BBC, Mansfield was responsible for commissioning docu-series such as Airport, Driving School, Vets in Practice and Holiday Reps.
He took up the post of ITV controller of documentaries features and arts last November, and was at the forefront of this new wave of documentaries with human dramas at their centre. They were pacy, with more scenes per half hour in a style usually associated with fictional drama such as EastEnders, and told compelling stories about real people who became stars in their own right.
Meanwhile, the remarkable success of a simple decorating show on the BBC was changing the way lifestyle programmes were viewed. Changing Rooms, a DIY show about two sets of neighbours who redecorate rooms in each other’s homes, attracted audiences of up to 7 million at its peak on BBC2 (a BBC2 programme does well if it draws 2.5 million) and after it was transferred to BBC1, it hit 11 million at the height of its popularity. The show starts its fifth series in the new year.
Changing Rooms proved these sort of programmes have the potential to pull in the big audiences needed for primetime ITV viewing. Now ITV is looking to replicate this popularity, drawing on its own successes in the docusoaps. Mansfield says: “It’s about telling good stories effectively with brevity and pace and style.”
ITV is now filming its own home improvement show to be screened in peaktime. Called Better Homes, it will be presented by Carol Vorderman.
Like the BBC’s Changing Rooms, the show features two families each week who have a different room transformed by pro- fessional interior designers. The family who live in the house which goes up most in value after the makeover win a cash prize.
Mansfield stresses the importance of responding to the people in the programme. He says: “You need warm, empathetic characters.”
It is often speculated that lifestyle series have mushroomed because, as the viewing public becomes more affluent, there is a growing preoccupation with food and decor. ITV wants to replace its gameshow image with more dramas and documentaries to mirror this change in public taste.
Peter Bazalgette, the man acknowledged as the king of lifestyle television and responsible for such hits as Changing Rooms, Ground Force and Ready Steady Cook, has an interesting theory about the success of lifestyle programmes. He argues that consumerism is the new religion in a secular age, and that the way we choose to spend our money is how we have come to define ourselves.
But Nikki Cheetham, managing director of Bazalgette’s production company Bazal, says: “What we want is to be told a good story. In the past, we only got that from dramas such as Coronation Street or Cracker. We are not manipulating these people’s lives, but we are structuring real life into a format.”
From a commercial point of view, successful leisure and lifestyle shows are good value because they are cheap to make. They also have strong brands that can be exploited with spin-offs such as magazines. The programmes are also attractive to advertisers. If a viewer has been watching a show that suggests ways to improve his or her home, the commercial breaks are a perfect environment for targeted advertising.
But one of the major drawbacks with lifestyle and leisure programming is that there are a limited number of subjects with mass appeal. ITV has to reach such a broad audience that only a handful of pastimes – such as travel – are an option.
The ingenuity lies in creating new formats that encompass these existing areas. This search for originality within limited subject matter also means the lines between different programme genres are becoming increasingly blurred.
Mansfield admits he is in talks with Bazalgette about a new travel entertainment show. If lifestyle programmes can work as well for ITV as they have for the BBC, expect to see ITV make more use of this new weapon in its updated programme armoury.