Intense scrutiny over TV practices in the past year has resulted in much soul-searching as broadcasters look to restore viewers' trust in their output. Programme-makers' efforts to right wrongs and avert future scandals are playing out against a backdrop of high job insecurity and a culture of bullying uncovered in a recent Broadcast survey, fuelled in no small part by fears over being left behind in the convergence revolution. But Peter Bazalgette, a driving force behind one of the triggers for 2007's trust crisis, Big Brother, is having none of it.
Sitting with his hands behind his head and his feet up on the Endemol boardroom table, his advice for staff reluctant to sign short-term contracts or renegotiate their job titles at a slimmed-down BBC is: “Stop whingeing and enjoy the fact that you're in a lively, growing industry that's a vital part of the economy - and where you have far more choice over your own destiny than you ever had when there were only three or four employers. See if you prefer working as a nurse or a teacher on their levels of pay and the pressure they have to put up with.”
Taking stock of the industry's woes as he steps down from a full-time role at Endemol after 10 years, Bazalgette, 54, believes broadcasters' self-regulatory attempts to get back on track will have long-term positive effects.
“Most of the problems have surfaced as a result of broadcasting organisations and production companies conducting their own audits - and we're not getting any credit for that,” he says. “We've all made mistakes and we shouldn't pretend we haven't, but we shouldn't overlook this fact. Taking risks in competitions to make money is not the same as taking editorial risks culturally. The BBC and Channel 4 in particular still have an appetite for risks on screen, but you need to work at it.”
Beeb needs backbone
Bazalgette has defended one of the highest profile casualties of the year's hand-wringing, BBC1 controller Peter Fincham. For him, Fincham's exit demonstrates a loss of nerve that makes a mockery of the BBC Trust. He remains angry about what he sees as the BBC and its trustees “kowtowing to a piece of public hysteria” to placate the tabloids.
Meanwhile, Jay Hunt's return to the BBC to replace Fincham after a short stint at Five struck many as proof that the senior talent pool is shrinking, with many of the usual suspects, including Bazalgette, quickly ruling themselves out.
Yet this too he takes as a sign of the direction the industry is taking - one we needn't discourage. With a greater multiplicity of jobs in a more fragmented industry, he argues the role of channel controller loses some of its cachet. “In the old days, everyone was trying to climb the greasy pole of the BBC or ITV and it was Buggins' turn next. Now, if you take someone like [Endemol's] Tim Hincks or [Objective's] Andrew O'Connor, these are largely people who have become senior figures in the industry without ever being in that sort of bureaucracy. Their names don't get bandied around because they've got other fish to fry.”
Eight years ago, Bazalgette told a Broadcast conference that by 2010, TV channels would be irrelevant. His view has softened since, but he argues that controllers must use their impresario status to nurture talent and retain ownership of content, rather than just operate the means of distribution.
“The broadcast channel is the most important way of distributing entertainment content as it creates a recognisable brand, but beyond that you can exploit the hell out of it across all the digital possibilities.”
This shift is especially valuable for the BBC, he says, as a way to exploit its reputation as the voice of authority - as demonstrated by the international appeal of its online news site. “In 10 years' time, if the BBC's licence fee is renewed, it's got to be on a completely different set of arguments,” he says. “If it's kept, the most important thing is that [the BBC] will be the most trusted voice among the gossip, rumour and paranoia online. The British people might want to continue to put public money into that.”
Bazalgette hopes this will put to rest the spurious argument that the BBC wastes public money on shows that ape its commercial rivals in a desperate drive for ratings dominance. “Which competitor? Electronic Arts' latest video game? MySpace? YouTube? Or ITV? This old-fashioned argument gets talked about either by its traditional competitors or by politicians who know diddly-squat about television as they never watch it, unless they're on it themselves.
“A show is a hit now on BBC1 or ITV1 if it gets more than 4.5 million viewers, which you could argue is a greater achievement than getting 8 million 10 years ago because there is so much more competition.”
At this point in our conversation, my analogue recording machine gives up the ghost. Expecting this fearsomely bright Cambridge law graduate and BBC-trained journalist to tell me to soldier on, I prepare to buck up my shorthand. But Bazalgette arranges a more up-to-date replacement, only for me to be wrong-footed further as the digital advocate professes not to have a clue how it works.
Noting my surprise at his apparently Luddite tendencies, he weighs in with his thoughts on one of his bugbears: the notion that programme-makers must reinvent the wheel to reach the young digital whiz kids: “You don't want to get caught up in the idea that 360-degree commissioning is a mysterious thing that mortals can't aspire to. All you need is a great idea that appeals across different media to be consumed in different ways.
“You don't need an understanding of digital technology to create an idea that will work. Big Brother started in 1999 and has been spun off online and on mobiles, but it wasn't invented by people who understood digital technology - just people who had a bloody cracking entertainment idea.”
As well as maintaining an arm's length consultancy role with Endemol, Bazalgette is considering a raft of digital companies to invest in. He is interested in rights and advertising, indicating where he thinks the next battles will be fought.
“Digitally, television companies are trying to learn the lessons of the music industry, and whatever the new models are, to get there first,” he says. “But the conundrum is if you have a return in the low millions from selling programmes on demand - because that's what the viewer wants - are you replacing a high-value eyeball watching a commercial break on your channel with a low-value one paying either a low amount of money or getting the content for free with a commercial?”
Here, too, he remains undaunted. “It's a fantastic opportunity for ads in the future because for the first time, there is a demonstrable and functional link between the ad and the person watching it, who has personally accepted the ad.”
As long as broadcasters invest in cross-platform content along with independent producers, he believes indies can grab their share of these revenues: “We're moving away from the cosy world of a few broadcasters with a public service responsibility to commission independent producers on terms of trade set out in an act of Parliament. The more broad-minded know that the logical end to all the campaigns about independent protection is that you have a free and open market in which nobody needs protecting. But this will be a market in which people have to take more risks.”
But the demands for high quality, marketable cross-platform entertainment go both ways, and Bazalgette recognises the need for more support for the new generation of producers. He paints his own career as a relatively easy ride, as one of a generation who saw the “God-given opportunity” to supply content to C4 in the sellers' market of the early 1980s, many of whom are now cashing in 25 years on.
“Indies are being bought on a high multiple of their profits, given the buyers are essentially buying people with a limited catalogue. It's important for the sector's health that younger individuals are enabled to start their own companies to become big players in the future.”
Noting that more super-indies are striking talent deals, rather than acquiring firms outright, not least because it's cheaper, he nevertheless calls on broadcasters to have more faith in young talent to invest in the future.
“It shouldn't be that the only way a young person can be a producer is to enter a large independent production company. The economy should be more flexible. I'm broadly optimistic that this can happen, but it needs to be seen as an important objective with a set policy of commissioning a certain amount of work from companies with a small turnover. It's mutually beneficial if these people are going to make the hits of the future.”
Hence his move from the board of a company with a turnover of more than£1bn to a floating role supporting ambitious digital start-ups. Unshackled from the Big Brother juggernaut that has ushered in the first era of cross-platform entertainment, Bazalgette is hungry to influence the next phase.
Trust in TV
“Television remains the most regulated and the most responsible medium. Compare the way in which politics is covered in newspapers and what you are allowed on TV. The excesses of the British newspaper industry in a single day are greater than those of the TV industry in a year. In this age of tabloid hysteria, people can lose all grip of reality or sensible behaviour.”
Online TV platforms
“A few of the new providers are going to do very well, but most of them are going to disappear like the snow in spring - the problem is we don't know which. YouTube got bought out, which made its founders very rich, but that doesn't make it a ‘success'. It's still high on eyeballs, but low on revenue.”
What he watches
“Cranford was wonderfully acted, realised and shot in a modern, soap manner. Secret Millionaire is absolutely charming in every way: on one level, it celebrates philanthropy but it also celebrates unsung heroes. It's one of those nice shows that people have gradually found thanks to C4 having faith in something that initially had a low audience.
“I am a big consumer of news, current affairs and documentaries. Despite all the whingeing that goes on about factual programmes, the daily dose of domestic and foreign news - and the choice of documentaries - is enormous. Most of the people who moan are in their 50s and 60s and either don't have multichannel TV or can't find their way around it. They think if it's not on BBC1 or BBC2, it's not there.”