ITV goes back to the future

Grade takes risks to revive U.K. network

LONDON — These are heady days for ITV, Blighty’s biggest private terrestrial web.

As the “biggest schedule changes in 25 years” kick in, webheads at under-performing flagship network ITV1 can be forgiven for looking a bit anxious.

They are wondering if a series of refreshingly bold programming moves can deliver a much needed bounce that may finally help get the company’s stock price moving in the right direction again.

Or will the scheduling makeover, remarkable for its distinct “back to the future” feel, come to be seen as another miscalculation en route to digital meltdown?

Certainly scribes invited to sample a taste of the resurrected flagship nightly newscast, “News at Ten,” at a press confab could feel the tension in the air. Worried webheads wouldn’t even mention the R word — that is R for ratings.

Make no mistake. A lot is riding on the shake-up that sees a new focus on 9 p.m. drama — a decade or so ago a virtually unassailable strength for ITV — more entertainment at weekends and, yes, the return of that old warhorse “News at Ten.”

“I’ve been at ITV since 1992. I can’t recall a set of changes like it,” says the man responsible for executing the plan, director of TV Simon Shaps.

Shaps knows that if the initiative fails, he will carry the can. But should the new look prove to be a hit with audiences and advertisers, then Shaps may well be promoted and succeed executive chairman Michael Grade, who arrived at ITV a year ago briefed to turn round the ailing broadcaster.

“News at Ten’s” reprise is pure Grade. He needed no persuading to bring back one of British TV’s iconic brands, having had to schedule against it a generation or so ago when he ran rival U.K. channel BBC1.

Critics were won over by the opening night of the reborn “News at Ten.” “ITV’s flagship news program…bounced back with a confident, reassuringly unfussy production,” said Quentin Letts in Blighty’s Daily Mail.

It remains to be seen how “News at Ten” beds down. Ultimately the program’s ratings performance depends more on the audience size for the show that precedes it (aired in the 9-10 p.m. slot), the so-called “inheritance factor,” than on its own intrinsic merits — or lack of them.

Fortunately for ITV, in this respect the omens are good. In the past week or so, the web’s new dramas have got off to a generally strong start.

Of these the most original is a pair of programs produced by rated Brit indie Kudos, whose credits include high concept BBC skein “Life on Mars.” They have made “Moving Wallpaper” and “Echo Beach” for ITV1.

“Moving Wallpaper” is a workplace, “Office”-style sitcom, set in the HQ of a fictional TV studio as the production team go about the daily grind of making a new TV soap opera.

“Echo Beach,” shown immediately after “Moving Wallpaper,” is the soap itself and events in it are influenced by what occurs in the sitcom.

For example, a wannabe actress who is seen dispensing sexual favors in “Moving Wallpaper” is subsequently depicted playing a part in the sudser.

The skeins’ creator Tony Jordan told the Times: “I’m nervous before any show comes out but this has taken 12 years to come to the screen.

“You can watch either show independently of the other, but if you like ‘Moving Wallpaper’ you can see how the jokes feed into ‘Echo Beach.’”

Smart, funny, knowing and aspirational, “Moving Wallpaper” is easily worth a slot on edgier, more upscale rival webs like Channel 4 or BBC2, and, importantly, suggests that ITV is back in the risk game.

Grade is fond of saying that “innovation is the lifeblood of our business.” Quite how this squares with reviving a news show that made its debut in 1967 is unclear, but the broadcaster has to be given the benefit of the doubt for unequivocally raising its creative game in other parts of ITV1’s new “back to the future” schedule.