MEDIA HEADLINER: Endemol's risk-taker-in-chief trusts in the tried and tested

Tim Hincks reckons reality TV has plenty of life left in it, as Claire Billings discovers.

Your views on Endemol will probably depend on whether you love or loathe reality television. The production company has been one of the chief protagonists in the burgeoning content revolution that has seen this voyeuristic format deliver mass audiences to terrestrial channels.

The genre began in the 90s with Groundforce, Ready Steady Cook and Changing Rooms - all created by Endemol and involving normal people and activities that viewers could relate to.

Big Brother followed, reaching its fifth series this summer, and can be credited with triggering the birth of copy-cat shows such as Pop Idol and I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!

Endemol's programming has also allowed advertisers to extend their sponsorship deals to provide greater interaction with viewers. O2's sponsorship of Big Brother included break bumpers and website branding, as well as allowing it to reach consumers via its mobile services and to test out new products such as video messaging.

The continued success of reality formats is reflected in the number of shows commissioned in the past two years. The Games, The Salon and Shattered all came from Endemol, under the guardianship of its creative director, Tim Hincks.

Hincks joined Endemol in 1991. Aged 21 and working at the Consumer Council, he had fired off letters to TV companies hoping for a break. Endemol's founder, Peter Bazalgette, was working on a book called the Food Revolution and needed a researcher.

Bazalgette kept him on a long leash from then on as a researcher on TV shows for six months of the year, while encouraging him to work on other BBC shows including Newsnight.

Bazalgette believes Hinck's lack of traditional television training gave him an advantage in developing programming that delivers big audiences and new ways of reaching consumers.

"Those who had been trained by the BBC, particularly, thought there was something sullying or dirty about making entertainment programming," Bazalgette says.

Hincks' skill appears to be in taking everyday matters and translating them into a compelling show that gets talked about. The idea for Shattered, in which contestants on the Channel 4 programme combated sleep deprivation, came about after his daughter, now two, was born. The Games tried to make heroes out of celebrities.

He has a boundless enthusiasm for his work, which helps him gain the trust of broadcasters when pitching his ideas for shows.

"What unites programmes such as Restoration, The Salon, Fame Academy and Shattered is that they either succeed or fail massively," he says. "You take a huge risk."

Until legislation changes open up the way for product placement, advertiser involvement with Endemol shows is limited to traditional sponsorship opportunities, which are extended across other platforms such as internet and mobile.

At the moment, the best advertisers can hope for are shows that direct viewers to the product. However, Hincks believes that broadcasters are being blamed for the stagnation in the evolution of advertiser-funded programming because their commissioning departments don't talk to their commercial departments.

There is also a question-mark hanging over the role of agencies in a world where advertisers directly fund TV shows. A logical extension of this argument is that programme originators such as Hincks and his team will gradually erode the role played by the top creative agencies.

However, Hincks is adamant that any relationship between advertisers and producers would not work without an intermediary.

Hincks argues that his concerns are similar to those of advertisers: "We are all looking over the same precipice of more fractured audiences - fewer chances for mass messages to get across in one hit. We could all hold hands as we jump off that precipice."

Endemol is already working on advertiser-funded projects, but the Inependent Television Commission investigation of Dinner Doctors, a show funded by Heinz, shows how cautiously it has to tread.

Until guidelines change, broadcasters will be looking to Hincks and his peers for the kind of shows that attract large audiences and capitalise on the excitement created by the genre of reality shows.

Hincks is adamant that the reality bubble hasn't burst. He fully expects Big Brother, currently advertising for applicants for this year's show, to last and is already predicting a sixth series in 2005.

He is also working on a property series, in which couples compete to renovate a hacienda in Spain, and a sports project. Neither is an original idea, but it's how they are developed that is crucial to their success, according to Hincks.

He says: "I'm obsessed with showing people who have compelling stories and then saying, 'What can we do with it?' This sort of programming is in rude health."

THE HINCKS FILE

1991: Endemol and BBC, researcher for Food & Drink, Newsnight, Business

Daily and The Agenda

1999: Endemol, deputy creative director

2001: Initial (Endemol live events programming division), managing

director

2002: Endemol, creative director

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