Ben Frow, chief content officer, UK, Paramount, has said that competitors are sometimes guilty of ” lazy, second-rate commissioning by numbers and 99 times out of 100 it doesn’t work. Viewers can tell mediocrity.”

Frow made the comments during an interview with Jay Hunt, creative director, Europe, Worldwide Video for Apple for an RTS event this week to celebrate 25 years of Channel 5.

At the event, Hunt described Frow as “taste-maker and chooser,” asking him how he made the right choices. Frow gave his commissioning bottom line: “You’re looking for something to solve a problem, to get you out of a hole…. What does it say about us as a channel? Have I been there before? would our audience watch it?” He also referenced three selling points: what’s the pre title? keep them after the break, coming up next week…. It’s not always an instant response to a pitch. “I might go back two weeks later…I don’t like it, I feel that it’s been done before, but it could be useful.

“We’re a commercial channel, we’ve got to make money. You can’t play at television. It’s a creative job but it cannot be an indulgent job.”

He’s consistent in his attitude to working with indies. “We’d much rather work with people who love us and want to be creative and know the budgets are limited, but can build a business with us.” He gave a nod to Yorkshire Vet producer Daisybeck Studios.

Frow likes to have the final say. He told the audience at London’s Cavendish Conference Centre that he recently bought a T Shirt printed with the words: “I’m not arguing with you, I’m just telling you that I’m right.” At the same time, he clearly has confidence in his team of commissioners. He described how he once gave each of them an Ace card, to play if they wanted to go ahead with an idea where he wasn’t convinced. Only Simon Raikes played his Ace. Right now, he’s got another scheme. He’s given everyone in the team £30k for a 10-minute pilot for a returnable show that they think will solve a problem in the schedule. The pilots will be screened in the last week of July. “I want them to take me to a place I wouldn’t choose to go…I want them to prove me wrong.”

Hunt also described him as a magpie commissioner. Frow conceded that if the BBC was dispensing with talent, he wasn’t averse to considering it for 5. And reboots?  “I don’t like taking old brands and reinventing them, but sometimes you have to do a short cut….I’m not pretending our job is to reinvent the wheel. We are not a channel that is supposed to innovate.”

Celebrity has taken shows to another level on the channel. Michael Palin, Michael Portillo, Dan Walker, have all worked well. “We can’t get enough of Susan Calman,” adds Frow.

One of the channel hits is Cruising with Jane McDonald, an idea that Frow says came to him when he was walking his dogs on Clapham Common. When McDonald left ITV’s Loose Women, ratings went down. Her face fitted 5, she was popular and she was from Yorkshire, the home of several Channel 5 success stories. “It’s a very me show,” says Frow, who picked a box set of the show as desert island viewing. “It takes a very familiar subject and does it in a very fresh way.” At the outset of the series, he and commissioner Greg Davies set the tone after viewing the first cut, taking it from more sneery, to warm and celebratory.

“Part of your job as a channel controller is how to duck and weave,” suggested Hunt. Describing the channel as “nimble,” Frow relishes the task of targeting the audience at the right moment. “My job is to provide the scheduler with as much ammunition as possible.” Putting the right show in the right place requires the trust of the production company. “I would beg the production companies to understand, we want every show to be a success.”

The channel’s show with Jay Blades, No Place Like Home had a soft approach which was hard to place. “Then we saw a gap in the schedule and it got one million viewers over three weeks,” says a gleeful Frow. Another recent store of ammunition is Bargain Loving Brits: “It’s doing amazing numbers, it’s like a new soap opera.”

The back end of 2022 will see tough competition for audiences, with I’m a Celebrity and the Football World Cup coverage “it’s going to be very tough and very bloody.”

Drama has been one driver of audiences and the channel now has 60 hours a year. “I’m surprised how quickly we ramped up” says Frow. “We did drama our way.” He describes how “snooty companies” deigned to pitch to them with less-than-exciting ideas. Instead, they found collaborators who wanted the chance to be creative, despite lower budgets. He cites the channel’s work with Sally Lindsay, actor and creative director of Madame Blanc Mysteries indie Saffron Cherry.

With true crime, reality and drama being the best genres for consolidation, and the responsibility as a public service broadcaster to have a rounded schedule, drama is staying firmly on the agenda.

Pippa Considine

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