Jeremy Lee
Jeremy Lee
A view from Jeremy Lee

Jeremy Lee on Media: Hauled over the cobbles

ITV's over-reliance on Coronation Street offers a warning to would-be television-empire builders.

When Sir Philip Green, the Arcadia tycoon, joined forces with fellow Sandy Lane holiday-resort regular Simon Cowell earlier this year, the worlds of business and entertainment - and acquisitiveness and naked ambition - collided.

Both have been reluctant to talk about the nature of their joint venture, leaving it to 'friends' to disclose that they hoped to create an international television business spanning content and merchandise that will rival Disney.

Perhaps it is no surprise then that Cowell is stalling negotiations with ITV over the renewal of his three-year contract. After all, if Cowell had any sense - or listened to the advice of the serial deal-maker Green - he would realise that the broadcaster's fortunes are overly reliant on formats owned by him.

Indeed, if he really wanted to play hardball, Cowell would walk away from the reported £24m on the table, sit back and watch ITV's share price plummet. This would leave the way clear for Green and him to make a bid for the network, creating the foundations for a Disney-style empire built on an audience already appreciative of Cowell's particular oeuvre.

ITV must surely be aware of its exposure, which is why it is so desperate to come up with successful programme formats of its own and then exploit them as much as it can. Sadly, aside from Coronation Street, its cupboard is currently pretty bare.

Being one of the 50m-odd people who don't watch Corrie, I didn't think I would enjoy the one-off drama The Road to Coronation Street, but I was intrigued by the light it shed on the ludicrous dynamic within British television. Here was an ITV production about the most-famous ITV programme being shown - presumably because such dramas do not attract sufficiently big audiences to make them commercially viable - on the BBC.

I ended up liking it. Aside from a superb cast - although it would be interesting to know what the Corrie creator Tony Warren made of his arch-camp depiction - and an element of dramatic suspense, it was heart-warming, funny and a little bit nostalgic. This is exactly what the remarkably loyal viewers of the soap, which celebrates its 50th birthday this year, say about it, too.

Whether they are still saying this by the time the actual anniversary comes around on 6 December is a moot point, given ITV's determination to squeeze every last possible drop of value out of the franchise. Holland's Pies, brewer JW Lees, Warburtons, Imperial Leather, Typhoo and current broadcast sponsor Harveys have all signed up as promotional partners, giving them the right to include Coronation Street branding on their products and in marketing.

ITV has also set up an online store where fans can buy branded Monopoly sets, as well as calendars, stationery and clothing. During August residents of Salford were given the opportunity to see a Reduced Shakespeare Company-style stage play spanning the soap's entire history, which may tour nationally. There are also plans for Coronation Street: The Musical.

Most recently, the broadcaster launched a social networking game based on the soap via Facebook and Much like the irritating Farmville game, users are encouraged to part with cash in order to proceed through the levels. Moreover, it is unlikely to end there.

While brand extensions and exploiting key assets are sensible strategies for any media company, it is also possible to take this approach beyond the point that it adds value. Viewers are not as stupid - or loyal - as Green, Cowell and ITV might like to think.

- Jeremy Lee is associate editor of Marketing


- Coronation Street was first called Florizel Street by its creator, Tony Warren, who was 24 when the first show was broadcast. It was initially commissioned for a run of 13 episodes but poor reviews led some Granada insiders to believe it would be axed.

- However, the everyday Northern language and storylines were popular with viewers and, by 1961, it had become the most-watched programme on UK television, attracting regular audiences of 20m by the mid-60s.

- The show was first shot on a studio set, which was moved outdoors in 1968. A permanent full-street set was built on a backlot in 1982. Granada offered tours of the set between 1989 and 1999.

- The Coronation Street theme was written by film music composer Eric Spear. The cornet solo was played by musician Ronnie Hunt, who was paid £6 for his performance in 1960.

- William Roache is the only remaining member of the original cast. His character, Ken Barlow, was first seen as a university student.