ITV: a case study in intellectual and moral bankruptcy

I could never understand why ITV bought Friends Reunited, never mind why it paid £175 million for it. At the time I published a blog post saying:

Television people are constitutionally incapable of dealing with the web because they have been socially and professionally conditioned in the world of ‘push’ media with its attendant control freakery and inbuilt assumptions about the passivity and stupidity of audiences. Very little of their experience or skills are useful in a ‘pull’ medium like the web, where the consumer is active, fickle and informed, and history to date suggests that if they are put in charge of internet operations they screw up.

That particular idiocy was committed by Charles Allen, the Granada CEO who presided over the network’s implosion. But eventually Allen departed and was replaced by Michael Grade in the hope that he would prove to be the CEO who would save ITV from the knacker’s yard. I’ve known and admired Grade from the time when I was the Observer‘s TV Critic, but it was obvious that he was the wrong guy for the Internet era. He was a genius in the old push-media world: a brilliant scheduler and commissioner in a time when broadcast TV was the dominant medium. (He commissioned The Singing Detective, for example, when he ran BBC1.) But he’s an old-world popular entertainment impresario and has never really ‘got’ the Net. The Board of ITV was stuffed with guys who didn’t understand the new ecosystem either, so of course they thought he would be just the ticket.

A few weeks before his ignominious departure was announced, I was a guest at a posh dinner in Claridges at which many of the other diners were the extinct volcanoes of the old push-media world. I sat next to a member of the ITV Board, for example, who stoutly maintained that Grade had been a brilliant appointment. As if on cue, Michael came over to us and in his best confidential-male-bonding-back-clapping style told us the latest score in a big premiership match then being played. It was touching in its olde-worlde, locker-room charm.

Immediately across from us sat Charles Allen, the guy who bought Friends Reunited: he too seemed similarly unaware of the extent of his misjudgement. And I remember thinking at the time that people like him (and Tony Blair) will die before they change their minds and admit the errors that will forever define their careers. And in a way that’s understandable: after all, how do you maintain your self-esteem if you have to admit to a colossal blunder? Better to die in denial than to live in shame.

All of which was brought to mind by a terrific piece by Carole Cadwalladr in today’s Observer. She begins with the original Friends Reunited purchase:

We’ve all made shopping mistakes, those never-to-be-worn impulse purchases left mouldering in a plastic bag at the bottom of the wardrobe, but in ITV’s case, it would have to be a pretty big bag, large enough to hold a £175m website and not the sort of thing M&S will give you a credit note for.

Four years ago, it bought Friends Reunited, which was, even then, the internet’s version of the poncho, briefly fashionable, already hopelessly dated, paying £175m or, as it turns out, around £160m too much. And, last week, it was doing the corporate equivalent of sticking it on eBay, crossing its hot little corporate fingers and hoping for a buyer.

It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for it. And yet not. Because there’s a nasty, invidious connection that links the blowing of £175m and the picture of Rebecca Langley in the papers last week, red, swollen, battered; another dark ITV executive secret.

The nasty secret is ITV’s reliance on one of the most morally-repugnant programmes I’ve ever seen on British TV — the Jeremy Kyle show. The peg for Cadwalladr’s piece is a court case which concluded last week in which a man was convicted of a violent assault on his girlfriend — with whom he had appeared on the Kyle show:

Rebecca Langley was a guest on The Jeremy Kyle Show and last week a judge found her boyfriend, Jamie Juste, guilty of grievous bodily harm and jailed him for two years. Sentencing him, Judge Sean Enright said the show contained “plainly an element of cruelty and exploitation”.

Twenty-three-years-old and 4ft 10in tall, Langley was left with a shattered eye socket and cheekbone and bite marks. The attack happened after the couple watched their appearance on The Jeremy Kyle Show with the judge concluding it had “fed his insecurities.

It turns out that this is almost par for the course.

In 2007, Judge Alan Berg, presiding over a case in which one guest on the show butted another, said that he believed its sole purpose was “to effect a morbid and depressing display of dysfunctional people whose lives are in turmoil”. Then in February last year, one Craig Platt found out via a DNA test on the show that he wasn’t the father of his baby, live on the show. A week later, he pointed a loaded air rifle at his wife’s head.

There is no shock. ITV knows exactly what it is doing. A year ago, I watched a recording of the show and discovered, by chance, that an 18-year-old man who was shown being abused by his drunken neighbours in a pub car park in Hemel Hempstead had bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia.

At the time, I thought, naively, that that would be that: you couldn’t knowingly abuse mentally ill people for the sake of entertainment and get away with it. But it turns out you can.

So, Cadwalladr concludes:

The Jeremy Kyle Show is the polar opposite of a social network. It’s not about meeting “new people” or sharing knowledge or “staying in touch”, as the Friends Reunited website claims, or as the internet can be at its best. It’s a divide-and-rule strategy dreamed up by an authoritarian overclass who create the conditions to humiliate the very poorest, weakest and least able members of society for one purpose alone: to accrue wealth for themselves. Better viewing figures mean larger audiences mean more advertising mean higher bonuses.

This is a nasty, brutal, cynical show, not in terms of the guests it attracts, but in the television executives who commission it, who preside over it, who direct their spokesmen to defend its exploitation of the mentally ill and its humiliation of the weak and unfortunate; a plastic bag of despair at the bottom of ITV’s wardrobe.

Spot on.