ITV Studios

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April 13th 2018: ITV Studios with JOHN WHISTON

ITV John WhistonMD of CONTINUING DRAMA and HEAD of ITV STUDIOS in the North

It’s not often that Business Club listens to a top speaker from one of our most successful companies and greets what he says with gales of laughter. But Edinburgh-born John Whiston is a natural raconteur; he is, he said, “an expert on bosses and how to survive them.” His tales from a long career were priceless, beginning as the spotlight man for Rowan Atkinson, then at the BBC (Timewatch, Omnibus) and continuing under such luminaries as “yoof” leader Janet Street-Porter, who “used to send anyone she didn’t like up to Manchester.”

But he also reminded us how fragile businesses have been only recently. ITV’s share price was at one grim point down to 16p and they didn’t have the money to pay the wage bill at the end of the week. But in came turnaround expert Archie Norman (share price up to £3) and he brought in Adam Crozier (very competent, but sacked a lot of people). John made himself scarce every Wednesday (sacking day) by heading up to Manchester to keep out of his way. Now, with the excellent Caroline Cole from EasyJet in charge and his bus pass looming, John joked he’d like to be sacked, but they won’t do it.

That’s because his direct responsibilities, Coronation Street and Emmerdale, respectively 58 and 47 years old, are still winning awards, increasing volume share, grabbing the younger demographic of audience without losing older fans. Quite a record. On ITV’s website he’s dubbed “The Pope of Soap”; with prime time audiences of 7 million or more, the soaps are an adman’s dream.

Why are these dramas still fresh? Audiences feel, said John, as if they own it. Grooming, anal rape, acid attacks, child abuse, cancer, dementia .. whatever the issues they’ll be thoroughly aired, with all the human dilemmas played out. Fans comment extensively on social media (when Pat Phelan disappeared there were 1,000 tweets a minute) and are intensely moral; they want justice – now! But of course the producers keep them guessing for weeks, and glued to the screen. Tony Warren’s original purpose for Corrie, to show real life, strong women, often feckless men in the working class Salford he knew, was and still is uncomfortable at times, but is still ahead of the game. Doesn’t John worry that this can all be a bit much for family viewing before the watershed? “Sure; one false move could bring it all down. We consult endlessly. But if we err on the side of safety, no-one will watch,” he said. And the public response to the toughest stories is overwhelmingly favourable.

Two feature films’ worth of material every week is needed for these series. The MediaCity site cost £50 millions, and another £12m extension has just been added this year with a tram stop, Costa, a Co-op,a tattoo parlour, police station and a pool hall. Steve Davis offered to come and play, and had to be reminded that it’s only a door. The new set’s full size – the old one was only 2/3rds size because old lenses tended to enlarge buildings, but that made it cramped – two cars couldn’t pass each other in the Street, for example.

The real secret is the writers, who are squirrelled away every so often in a spa hotel (“It has to be a spa hotel”) to talk through future story lines and characters. Students too are encouraged through the Northern Lights scheme, taught the rudiments of screen-writing and invited to concoct episodes. “Plot lines in conversation on staircases won’t do,” John said cryptically. He praised one youngster who set up Christmas dinner with a Corrie matriarch; police come and arrest her husband; Drug Squad arrive to arrest her son; throughout she is determined not to have her Christmas ruined, and so on. “That young man has a future writing for television.”

The ITV audience is increasing, despite Netflix, Amazon and streaming. People are watching more TV, not less. The strategy is to be on every platform; their 16-24 year old audience has gone up in recent years. Profits are down this year for the first time in 7 years, the result of Brexit and other uncertainties, but ITV are confident.

Just over half of group revenue (52%) comes from advertising, much of the rest from selling their product overseas. ITV is the biggest producer in the UK and growing rapidly in the USA, adding £1.5bn in revenue, half of it from outside the UK. They create programmes now in 11 countries which are then sold round the world. Corrie is huge in Canada, Emmerdale in Finland; Vera, set in Northumberland, has Americans loving it. You’d think regional drama with strong accents and grim landscapes would be of limited interest, but no: “Think about it: we love Scandi noir with funny sweaters,” John pointed out.

“Relish your regionality; global comes from local.” This is his lesson for all businesses: rebalancing is important. When times are tough and the competition fierce, regional bases help innovation. You have to rebalance, to be nimble in a changing environment, to survive and to thrive. ITV are a fine example of how it’s done.