Keeping a traditional TV network healthy has never been easy. In an Internet-driven era, the challenge is greater still. But Peter Fincham, ITV’s director of television, is convinced that despite growing competition and new viewing habits, audiences and advertisers remain hooked on the broadcast model.
“In a changing world, there is still the phenomenon of the big mainstream channel delivering high-quality programs across a broad range of genres,” Fincham says.
He is the webhead responsible for greenlighting “Downton Abbey” and “Broadchurch” for ITV, which remains the U.K.’s most popular commercial terrestrial channel.
Two years ago, Fincham helped ITV increase its audience share for the first time in 23 years, winning a clutch of BAFTAs in the process.
In 2014, ITV’s “Cilla,” a biopic of the British singer Cilla Black, set in the early 1960s, was the most-watched new drama on any British channel, winning an average audience of 8.3 million viewers and a 31% audience share.
Fincham’s ITV portfolio also boasts two of Blighty’s most successful and enduring soaps, “Coronation Street” and “Emmerdale,” entertainment juggernauts “The X Factor” and “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!,” plus an award-winning news show.
“A big part of this job is having the right talent on board,” stresses Fincham, “whether it’s Ant and Dec (‘Saturday Night Takeaway’), Julian Fellowes (‘Downton Abbey’), Chris Chibnall (‘Broadchurch’) or Simon Cowell (‘The X Factor’).”
Prior to joining ITV in 2008, Fincham was controller of BBC1, the pubcaster’s flagship service and main rival. Previously he had enjoyed a successful and lucrative career in independent production as CEO of high-profile British shingle, Talkback Thames.
“Running Britain’s two biggest channels, and all the experience that provides, gives you a bit of perspective,” he says. “The technology changes, viewing habits change but audiences still want the shared viewing experience. Some parts of the audience may want to binge watch on boxed sets — and we can provide that too via Sky — but linear TV is turning out to be incredibly resilient.”
He notes that the Internet was supposed to destroy mainstream TV, but he thinks that if anything, it’s enhanced it.
As director of television, Fincham is responsible for spending a budget of around $1.49 billion.
He now runs seven channels. Last year, ITV bowed two networks, female-skewed ITVBe and its first pay net, ITV Encore.
The lion’s share of the money goes on core network, ITV, which remains the company’s main business.
It’s estimated that around half of ITV’s revenue still depends on the health of the flagship channel.
“Advertising spots are bought across ITV’s channel portfolio,” says analyst Michael Underhill at Enders Analysis. “But it’s still the main channel that delivers the big audiences. If you want to reach 10 million people you’ve got to be on ITV. … The finale of ‘X Factor’ is Britain’s Super Bowl.”
This makes Fincham’s role crucial to ITV’s overall well-being.
He was already onboard when the new team of CEO Adam Crozier and chairman Archie Norman got to work in 2010.
Coincidentally, this was the year when “Downton Abbey” made its U.K. debut and helped spark ITV’s renaissance.
ITV would have been happier — and richer — had the global phenomenon been produced inhouse, but “Downton Abbey” is made by Carnival, owned by NBCUniversal, the ultimate beneficiary of the show’s success.
The series, however, helped rebuild ITV’s confidence and enabled Fincham to raise his game across a range of shows, notably drama.
The breadth of ITV’s drama can sometimes be overlooked.
“Mr. Selfridge,” made inhouse, has proven a strong Sunday night show, while Fincham has also commissioned more ambitious fare such as the recent two-parter “The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies,” written by Peter Morgan and helmed by Roger Michell.
Not everything on Fincham’s horizon is sunny. In the past year ITV’s ratings have faltered (“It’s true that ‘X Factor’ doesn’t do as well as it once did, but everyone in TV is looking for the next, big entertainment show,” he says); however, he takes the long view and is confident that in the months ahead audience figures will improve.
He highlights new and returning dramas to lift ratings, including “Jekyll & Hyde,” “Home Fires” and “The Forgotten,” and the return of “Doc Martin,” “Prey,” “Vera” and, of course, “Downton Abbey.”