Peter Fincham

This interview originally appeared in the MIPTV 2014 issue of TV Europe.

Last year, ITV, the leading commercial broadcaster in the U.K., increased its audience share for the first time since 1990. In fact, of the country’s five terrestrial broadcasters, ITV was the only one to improve its share—and this after several years of low ratings, particularly in 2012. The growth in audience has been due to several hits such as Downton Abbey, Broadchurch and the evergreen entertainment show I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! As director of television, channels and online, Peter Fincham oversees not only flagship ITV but also a digital bouquet that includes ITV2 and ITV3, the most successful digital channels in the U.K., and the distribution of ITV content on digital platforms, the most important of which is the ITV Player, the popular catch-up TV service. Fincham talks to TV Europe about changing viewing habits and the power of great scripts and storytelling.

TV EUROPE: What has been fueling the success of ITV’s schedule?
FINCHAM: It’s a mixture of things but they all come back to fundamentals, which are: trying to work with the right talent and commission the right programs and trying to challenge our audience, but at the same time give them what they understand and recognize. Although the world changes around us with bewildering speed—technologies and platforms and viewing patterns—the constants that don’t change very much will remain the same this year, next year and in ten years’ time, which are, if you make great programs and tell great stories, people will come to your channel.

TV EUROPE: Downton Abbey and Broadchurch have been very successful but they are also very expensive. Is there the intent to continue to invest in drama?
FINCHAM: There is every intention to continue to invest. Drama is one of the core genres of ITV. There is no question of our commitment to drama. It will continue and probably be as strong as ever. We are at a very exciting time in drama when audiences are more or less saying to us, “Challenge us. Take us to places we didn’t expect to be taken. Give us something radical. Give us something unexpected.” The result of that is that there is a lot of good television drama around.

TV EUROPE: Are period pieces and crime dramas here to stay or are you also looking for more contemporary dramas?
FINCHAM: Everything is here to stay and we are looking for more contemporary. If you have a big hit with a period drama, there are two mistakes to make: the first is to say let’s have nothing but period drama—believe me, that is a mistake; and the other one is to say let’s not have any more at all—that’s also a mistake. Everything is case by case. In a sense, there is a certain purity about drama that you should always commission a great script. Commission a great script if it’s set on the moon! Commission a great script if it’s set under water! But don’t commission a not very good script even it seems to tick all the boxes you normally want to tick. So I would say, period is here to stay, crime is certainly here to stay and so is contemporary. Audiences will come to what they believe tells them a great story, whatever its sub-genre.

TV EUROPE: I loved Broadchurch and watched it on BBC America. Unlike your audience I was able to watch one episode after another because they were stacked on demand. What did Broadchurch teach you about audiences' appetites for drama and how it is made and scheduled?
FINCHAM: I think what it showed, and it’s not unique in this, is slightly contrary to what people normally thought. People thought the audience’s attention span is getting smaller and we are living in an age of 30-second video clips. I don’t think that was ever right. People’s attention spans for things that they enjoy are getting longer and they want more of what they like. I often hear people talk about DVD box sets and binge viewing and how that’s the direction in which we are all going. What I think is wrong about that is it slightly implies that we are a herd of sheep and we all go in the same direction together. I don’t think that is the reality at all. I think Broadchurch showed here in the U.K. that there is an enormous appetite for a series that plays at nine o’clock every Monday and you’ve got to wait till nine o’clock the next Monday to find out what happens next. We didn’t play any next time teaser trailers at the end of each episode. We just kept them guessing and they loved it. It’s something that I sometimes call the pleasure of deferred pleasure.

But believe me, I binge view with the best of them! Binge viewing along with linear viewing—that is not a battle between two different things only one of which can win. Both can win. It’s an extension of viewer choice. I’m an unashamed advocate of and lover of binge viewing, but I absolutely love linear schedules and I do think that there is a voice in your head as a viewer that says, I’ve had a busy day at work, I’m home now, what’s on the television, Oh good, I’m going to watch that. That voice isn’t going to go away [it’s just] somebody else making some choices on your behalf and saying, Hey, It’s Sunday night, what about Downton Abbey? The fact that we can all schedule our own evenings through video on demand and shows that we have recorded on our PVRs [personal video recorders], doesn’t actually remove the magic of the linear schedule because linear schedule talks in particular to the shared experience of television: “Hey, did you watch Broadchurch last night? So did I. What did you think? Where do you think it’s going?” I don’t believe we are going to lose our taste for that because I think we all like it.

TV EUROPE: With the mainstream channels in the U.K. all committed to drama, is it difficult to find ideas, actors or writers who are available, or is the pool sufficient to fill the demand?
FINCHAM: The supply and demand of great drama has definitely changed in recent years, i.e. there is very strong demand. There are a lot of channels in America commissioning original scripted material and a lot of it using British talent, both on and off screen, and there is no shortage of it going on over here. Anyone who is involved in the commissioning of drama would tell you that the challenge is to find great scripts. The focus on is writers—Chris Chibnall of Broadchurch or Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey. The craft values of television drama today are as high as they have ever been, the production values, the way the shows are designed and lit and shot, the directing are all very good. There has been a massive narrowing of production values between television and feature films. Television continues to raise its game with really strong production values. But as they used to say in comedy, nobody laughs at the lighting—unless it’s particularly bad…and production values alone will not bring an audience and then hold an audience to a drama. Storytelling will do that and that will come from scripts. I think this is an era when it’s never been better to be a really brilliant drama writer for television. You are going to be in demand a lot.

TV EUROPE: In the U.S., networks are known to cancel a show after one or two episodes. Is the tradition in the U.K. to give more time to a show—say a comedy—so it can find its voice and its audience?
FINCHAM: They are two different traditions and if I had a comedy that was under-performing, I would weigh up the commercial advantage I might get from cancelling it after two episodes against the relationship with the talent that I have and the importance of a channel's reputation for backing talent and sticking with it, in tough times as well as good. I might end up thinking I’d rather keep that relationship than go for the short-term commercial advantage.

Comedy is a terribly important genre in the mainstream [channel] world and shows like The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family have shown America that they can command huge audiences. At ITV we’ve been out of comedy for quite a while, not entirely, there have been exceptions. So, yes, we’ve had a strong push back into comedy and we’ve got running at the moment Birds of a Feather, which has been getting big audiences, and we are delighted. We have some really good comedy on ITV2, a sitcom called Plebs that has won awards already. There is another comedy called The Job Lot that we started on ITV and is now on ITV2, I love that. We have Vicious written by Gary Janetti, one of the main writers on Family Guy, and that is back with Sir Ian McKellan and Derek Jacobi. We want to get back to where we think we ought to be in comedy.

Comedy is a high-risk genre, probably the highest-risk genre of them all. They used to say about drama that if nobody watched you can always say it was interesting. But you can’t say that about a comedy, people want to laugh at a comedy and it’s looking for big audiences.

TV EUROPE: Looking at entertainment, what are you focusing on—talent competitions, reality competitions, game shows?
FINCHAM: As with anything else, it’s a blend. I think it’s always [dangerous] to say here is a prevailing trend and everything has to fit into that prevailing trend. So if you take reality, our big reality show is I’m A Celebrity... Last autumn, its 13th series was the biggest series of all. You might not have thought that was very likely, you would have thought that it would have faded a bit by now. But it somehow kept fresh and the audience absolutely loves it. In the world of talent shows we have some of the most important ones in the U.K. We have The X Factor, we have Britain’s Got Talent. I think people watch the entertainment space and they see one particular series might be down a little bit year on year, or might have flat-lined or grown a little and they always want to take that curve and then follow it to some logical conclusion. But I would caution anyone against doing that. I think that people have a remarkable appetite for the big dominant formats of entertainment television today. And we’ve got some of the biggest and broadly speaking they are in pretty good health.

People are, the world over, looking for the next big thing in entertainment. I think they are and they always will be and this is certainly not something peculiar to the ITV or the U.K. You’ll find it in America, you’ll find it in Germany and France and any big territory where television audiences like entertainment. We are all, always, looking for the next big thing.

TV EUROPE: As strong as your commissioned and original productions are, what role does acquired programming play not only on ITV, but on the bouquet of channels?
FINCHAM: Across the bouquet of channels quite an important role. On the main channel, it’s a much more occasional thing. Last year for the first time in some years we bought a U.S. series, The Americans that stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys. We absolutely love that series. Compared with homegrown drama it attracts a relatively specialist audience, but it’s great to have something of that quality on the main channel.

TV EUROPE: How are the digital channels doing and are they set up to complement ITV?
FINCHAM: They absolutely are, but they are also channels in their own right and ITV2 and ITV3 are, by quite a long gap, the two most successful digital channels in the U.K. and remain so. We have plans in this area. We have recently announced we are starting a new pay channel for drama for Sky. Our channel family was certainly the most successful last year in terms of performance growth, but that doesn’t mean that we are resting on our laurels, we’ve got more plans.

TV EUROPE: How is ITV satisfying viewers’ demand to watch when and where they want?
FINCHAM: We will satisfy them wherever and whenever they want to do it. We are what you call platform-agnostic and I’m sure that’s the right thing to be. There is no point in trying to trap audiences within a walled garden. They will break out of that. ITV Player is growing very fast. But it’s worth saying this as well. Most catch-up viewing is not VOD, it’s on PVR, and most of the rise in time-shifted viewing has certainly come because people have acquired personal video recorders for the first time and have started using them. It’s a perfect example of something [that is] rightly perceived as a strong trend, but to think of [it as] a particularly modern one, is not quite as modern as you think. I was first time-shifting viewing back in the very beginning of the 1980s when I acquired my first VHS recorder. And even though it’s a very ponderous thing to do, we would record a program and watch it at the time that suited us. Some people think this has all arrived in the last 18 months. It hasn’t all arrived in the last 18 months. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a growing trend. Nor does it mean that live viewing, scheduled television, won't continue to be resilient.