ITV's man behind the scenes decides to reveal colours

campaignlive.co.uk, Thursday, 23 October 2003 08:00AM

Nigel Pickard has big plans for the newly merged ITV's schedule, Jeremy Lee says.

While much of the media industry finds itself writhing about in twisted knickers following the approval of the Carlton and Granada merger, Nigel Pickard, ITV's director of programmes, is in more relaxed mood, reflecting on the benefits the merged company gives him.

"We're going to have a single focus. Different shareholders meant different views," he says.

As well as consigning the famously dysfunctional management structure to the dustbin, the merger, we are led to believe, will also release money for the schedule. In a timely piece of PR, last week ITV announced that it was giving Pickard £849m to spend on next year's programming.

This may, or may not, represent an increase of 7 per cent on the previous year. ITV, perhaps reflecting its new chief executive Charles Allen's former calling as an accountant, has changed the way it calculates its financial year so a like-for-like comparison is tricky.

Whatever. Pickard is "delighted" with the budget increase, which means ITV has the biggest programme budget of any European commercial broadcaster.

He dismisses concerns that the creation of a single management team will mean he is leaned on to commission more ITV-produced programmes and that the money is just to be redistributed around the company. "The Network Centre is a meritocracy -- it's about getting the best programmes and audiences for advertisers," he says.

It's exactly a year since ITV announced Pickard was joining the Network Centre after its failed attempt to lure Dawn Airey to replace David Liddiment. At the time, the ad industry's response was muted -- after all, most knew next to nothing about Pickard, whereas Airey had a star quality gained from her time running five.

Pickard arrived at Gray's Inn Road in April and for the next six months largely kept his head down and his name out of the headlines.

"When I started, I deliberately said I wouldn't shoot from the hip and that I'd concentrate on the autumn schedule. But now I've decided to come out," he explains.

He jokes that the last comment should not be included, "in case my wife gets the wrong idea", but one of Pickard's outings is as part of ITV's itinerant band that visits agencies ahead of the negotiation round for the up fronts.

As negotiations hot up following the establishment of a new ITV trading mechanism, he'll become an increasingly familiar figure. Scruffy, with an untidy beard and a passion for clay-pigeon shooting, Pickard has worked his way up from the studio floor to the top of the management ranks.

During a previous stint at Network Centre as the head of children's ITV, he brought new talent such as Cat Deeley and Ant and Dec to the channel before being poached by the BBC director-general, Greg Dyke, to run its children's output and to launch its two digital children's channels, CBBC and CBeebies.

Most striking, and most commented upon, is the contrast between Pickard and his predecessor -- the immaculate, metropolitan and flamboyant Liddiment.

Whereas Liddiment came across as a rather lofty intellectual and was criticised for making "Guardian programmes" for a Sun-reading audience, Pickard is more pragmatic, blokey and jocular. And while there are City rumblings as to whom should be included in the new management of ITV plc, one analyst says it is essential Pickard remains on board.

Pickard has identified a number of programme areas that he wants to improve. "Drama and entertainment drive ITV. We'll be investing in Saturday evenings and creating more talked-about programmes," he says.

As part of this policy, Pickard hints that ITV will return to the cult of the celebrity presenter. "ITV had been a bastion of really good entertainment, created by people such as Bruce [Forsyth] and Des [O'Connor]. There are opportunities for people such as Mel Sykes, Cat Deeley and Ant and Dec to become mainstream peaktime celebrities," he says.

Older stars can expect to find themselves drawing their pensions as Pickard focuses on attracting younger audiences while maintaining or growing its audiences.

Drama and children's time can also all look forward to an injection of cash, as can comedy, an area that Pickard acknowledges ITV does not have a great track record in. But he sees no reason edgier post-watershed formats won't succeed. A Frank Skinner vehicle, 'Shane', premieres this autumn.

ITV has had a relatively good year so far. It broadcast 499 of the top 500 programmes on commercial television in the past year and is stemming the audience decline despite the growth of multichannel.

Despite this laudable performance, Pickard shows no sign of resting on his laurels. "The objective is to maintain peaktime share, but I want to increase all-time share," he says. This is exactly the sort of stuff agencies, once they've unravelled the intricacies of the new trading structure, want to hear.

The Pickard file

1997 Flextech, vice-president production and general manager of Challenge TV

1998 ITV, controller of children's and youth programmes

2000 BBC, controller of CBBC

2003 ITV, director of programmes

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This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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