Charlie Parsons explains why Planet 24 is ready for ads. Claire Beale
Planet 24 is just as sweaty and exciting as the hottest creative shop,
its reception pumps out the Big Breakfast like an advertising showreel,
its managing director talks brands, markets, consumer demand like any
good account director, and - surprise, surprise - the company is poised
to make its first ad.
Pepsi has approached the independent production company (Campaign, last
week) to develop a series of three-minute ads which will look like one
of Planet 24’s programmes (or as like as the regulators will allow).
But Charlie Parsons, Planet 24’s floppy-haired managing director, has
good news for advertising agencies whose showreels are no match for an
episode of the Big Breakfast.
‘We’d never dream of becoming an advertising agency because that’s not
what we’re good at,’ he says. ‘What we’re good at is making programmes.’
So relax and let’s find out why Mr Parsons and his team are taking over
our TVs, including the bits between the programmes.
Parsons, 38, Oxbridge English graduate, some-time journalist and now
cult programme-maker, may come on like he’s all creative kitten, but he
sounds like he’s got ‘commercial edge’ tattooed on his soul.
He says things such as: ‘We’re very good at developing brands. Our
programmes are brands.’ If Planet 24’s programmes are brands, then
they’re like pink sticky pop: they make you retch with every swig, but
with enough artificial colour to keep you hooked.
Parsons is the guy who gave the world the Word and the Big Breakfast.
Yep, not so much yoof TV as naff TV.
You’re probably squirming in your seat right now, thinking of all those
embarrassing links, stomach pumping, maggot eating, penis enlargements
and, talking of which, Terry Christian. Imprinted on your brain, right?
Like the name Planet 24.
You see, the reason Planet 24 does so well, despite the fact that none
of us would admit to liking its programmes, is that it understands not
just what the audience wants, but what the broadcaster and its
‘A programme isn’t a programme without the right viewers,’ Parsons
explains. ‘We have the knack of making people want to watch us because
there’s always something special in there. Our programmes are
intensively produced, very ambitious, often events in their own right,
and that’s very good for broadcasters in this world where there are
going to be so many broadcasters that they need real reasons for people
to watch their segment of the schedule.’
When Parsons and his partners, Waheed Ali and Bob Geldof, sat down to
draw up a pitch for Channel 4’s breakfast slot, the trio decided:
‘Channel 4 needs something which is positive, upbeat and can pull in the
advertising revenue. It needs a brand, something distinctive.’
The Big Breakfast was born and Channel 4’s success was sealed. You might
argue that the recent attempt to revive the show with its new set and
new presenters is like giving the kiss of life to a skeleton, but the
Big Breakfast certainly did the job in the early years.
If Planet 24 can keep coming up with such event programming, then
Parsons is right, broadcasters could be baying for their material to set
them apart from the other hundred or so channels. But this idea of
getting into the ad breaks as well, isn’t this dangerous territory in a
well-regulated broadcasting environment?
Planet 24 has already brought a major advertiser-supplied programme to
our screens - Hotel Babylon for Heineken and ITV. The show raised
controversy over possible editorial interference from the sponsor, but
Parsons insists that his company is very anal about staying within the
regulations. ‘We’re very ambitious and push things as far as they can
go, but we never stray beyond the rules,’ he says.
But the dividing line between media owner and programme or commercial
producer is not one which Parsons aims necessarily to respect.
Planet 24 is bidding for the next London FM radio licence with a
proposal for a station aimed at lesbians and gays. And he won’t rule out
involvement in one of those many broadcasters waiting to be born in the
new digital age.
For the moment, though, he’s happy for Planet 24’s core programming
business to be a point of reference for other creative endeavours.
‘Almost every programme I’ve ever worked on has almost immediately
influenced ads. I’ve just seen the first ad inspired by the new Big
Breakfast sting graphic, for a game called Connect 4.’
And don’t worry, this whole Pepsi thing, it’s not about revenge.
The Parsons file
1979 Ealing Gazette, trainee reporter
1982 LWT, researcher
1987 Network Seven, series editor
1989 24 Hours, partner
1992 Planet 24, partner