The reality of a TV entertainment brand

The ears of Nigel Pickard, ITV director of programmes, will be burning after Luke Johnson, Channel 4 chairman – and never a man to mince his words – laid into him at a recent television summit. Or at least, it was him Johnson had in his sights when he lambasted ITV as a ‘profoundly timid organisation who are playing it safe… a very dangerous game in the long run’.

In one sense this was just a more rhetorical reprise of the sort of thing Starcom UK Group chairman Jim Marshall had been saying at the recent Marketing Week TV Conference, to wit ITV had squandered most of its energies over the past ten years on corporate acquisitions and mergers rather than giving viewers what they actually wanted to see.

But Johnson was also making a broader critique, and one which did not spare his own channel in its sweep. He suggested Channel 4 had to get away from the notion of just being TV and aspire to an “entertainment brand”, active in everything from live events, music and mobile phones to computer games.

As it happens, the entertainment brand is already with us, although in a rudimentary form. It can be seen in the success of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and ‘reality’ shows such as Big Brother. A key ingredient of success has been their versatile approach to money-making, outside the conventional stream of spot advertising revenue. Millionaire, for example, creates its prizes from the revenues generated from phone calls by wannabe contestants, while Big Brother manages to charge people for streamed online viewing and phone voting on evictions.

Indeed, as Big Brother’s presiding genius, Peter Bazalgette of Endemol, muses in a recently published book, where would Big Brother (or any of the other reality TV shows for that matter) have been without the widespread uptake of mobile phones and the internet?

One crucial element missing from this virtuous new media money-making circle outlined by Johnson and Bazalgette is the distinctly old world influence of the UK tabloid press. Although often condemned by the right-minded and morally queasy as voyeuristic and exploitative, successful reality shows have always enjoyed a good press in the tabloids (in much the same way as soaps). They have done so because the narratives are compelling and result in emotionally involving situations.

What can go wrong (going back to Nigel Pickard) is being seen in Celebrity Love Island, which has been savaged by the tabloids precisely because it is boring – with disastrous consequences for the viewing figures.

It may be that Celebrity Love Island was badly researched and lacked the careful attention to detail of earlier reality shows such as ITV’s Survivor. Or alternatively, the reality genre is beginning to wear out – as Bazalgette always said it would eventually. We’ll get a better idea with the debut of Big Brother 6 later this week.

Whatever the outcome – and like it or not – reality TV has been an important experiment in the future of television.

Stuart Smith, Editor

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