If ITV director of programmes David Liddiment is still looking for a ratings-winner to help fill that yawning gap between 10pm and 11pm and give the Nightly News an audience worth inheriting, he need look no further than his own backyard.
In the vogue genre of “factual entertainment”, the television events of the past week would take some beating.
I don’t mean the sight of Channel 4’s Big Brother contestants getting their kit off and jumping into showers and beds together. When I was shown round the Big Brother house earlier this month by Peter Bazalgette, founding father of factual entertainment, whose company makes the programme, he assured me the reason there were cameras in the shower room and the lavatories was in case the contestants had significant conversations there. This was, after all, public-service Channel 4, and its commissioning editor was insisting that the UK version would be more of a sociological experiment than the unashamed ratings-driver it had been in Holland and Germany.
But if ITV were to share with its audience its real-life docusoap scenes of the past week, the Big Brother format would be ideal. And if it wanted to put its own stamp on the format, it could merge it with its own ratings-winner Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?
This latest example of “voyeur television” would have viewers riveted by the sight of ten TV millionaires and regulators, locked in a house under the unblinking gaze of 25 cameras, bombarding each other with questions that could either make them very rich, or land them in the law courts.
As in the real Big Brother, the public would be fascinated by the on-off relationships and rows. Already, even without the blow-by-blow, fly-on-the-wall TV coverage, City analysts – if not the bookmakers – are laying odds on which of the participants will end up in bed together, which will be thrown out, and which will end up in the courts.
Last time on Millionaire Big Brother: Michael and Clive, two TV millionaires with conflicting political views, have put aside their differences and are getting on famously. They’d like to get together permanently but under the rules of the house they have to ask the other contestants first.
Denise, a competition regulator, and Steven, a Government minister, want to know what everyone else thinks. Charles, a millionaire caterer with friends in the North, is determined to break up Michael and Clive’s partnership. He announces that if the two did get together they would be too rich, and he would make a much better partner for either of them.
Rupert and Bob, two advertising types, also want to break up the relationship, but they don’t want Charles to step in, suspecting that either way they would end up footing the bill.
Meanwhile Robin, a television regulator, is unhappy with Michael, Clive and Charles for putting on the TV news too late at night. He says that at 11 o’clock he’s trying to sleep, and they should put it on earlier. They retort that they prefer films and dramas in the middle of the evening and tell Robin he’s living in the past. In any case, they say, it’s not up to them – the remote control belongs to David, a TV programme executive, who not only understands the Electronic Programme Guide but even knows how to work the video.
In this week’s episode, the action is even more fast and furious. Denise and Steven tell Michael and Clive they can get together, but only if Clive sells one of his three televisions – the biggest and most expensive one. Amazingly, they also tell Charles that he can try his luck with either of the two. Rupert and Bob are furious and demand a meeting with Michael, Clive and Charles to give them a piece of their mind. But they can’t find them. Only we, the viewers at home, can see where they are. Michael and Clive are in one room, talking earnestly, while Charles is outside in the garden, counting his chickens. Suddenly, in bursts Robin. Wagging a finger at David, he says: “I’ve had just about enough of you, ganging up with Michael, Clive and Charles. You’re not taking any notice of me, so see how you like this: I order you to put the news on earlier.”
“Sorry, guv,” he says, “no can do. See you in court.” “Too right you will,” says Robin, “I haven’t lost a case yet.”
In rush Michael and Clive. “It’s all over between us and it’s your fault,” they announce, pointing at Denise and Steven. Michael is furious: “I really wanted Clive’s big TV set – it wouldn’t be the same without it.”
But where’s Clive gone? Suddenly the camera catches up with him – he’s talking to Charles in the garden. They’re still miked up and they seem to be talking about a deal…
Next week on Millionaire Big Brother: Will Clive and Charles get it together? Or will someone else get their hands on Clive’s big TV? Will Michael get mad, or can he get even? How much angrier can Robin get – and who’ll get to the court first, he or David? What are Denise and Steven cooking up in the kitchen? Could they be planning to change the house rules?
Two things are for certain: everyone’s lawyers are going to make a fortune and Rupert and Bob, the advertising types, are going to end up out of pocket.
Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News