Thursday, August 20, 2009

Just When You're Ready To Give Up On Humanity, The Ratings Prove You Wrong

Let us begin the latest batch of Top Telly News, dear blog reader, with something that is really heartwarming and genuinely proper life-affirming. ITV's absolutely wretched and thoroughly worthless documentary about Sarah Ferguson's self-appointed mission to tackle obesity in Manchester flopped with viewers on Tuesday night, with just two and a half million tuning in. Over the hour from 9pm, The Duchess on the Estate managed to hold most its audience, peaking with 2.6m between 9.15pm and 9.30pm before falling away towards the end. So far this year, that particular slot has averaged an audience of just under four million viewers. The ratings for this dreadful, patronising excuse for 'infotainment' (and self-publicity) were not enough to overtake Crimewatch Solved on BBC1, which won the 9pm hour with three and three-quarter million viewers, or to beat Five, which drew level with ITV with CSI: Miami. A tiny fraction of the several miles worth of lost faith in the basic decency of the human race that Keith Telly Topping has acquired over the years just regained a couple of inches.

And a couple more inches (maybe as much as a foot) were added the next day when the final installment in the current series of Who Do You Think You Are? featuring The Office actor Martin Freeman pulled in six million viewers for BBC1, commanding a 27.9 per cent audience share. Freeman's charm - and the very interesting story he discovered about his grandfather's death at Dunkirk and his great-grandfather's life as a blind man in the late Nineteenth Century - helped the episode to claim the 9pm slot for BBC1. It secured nearly twice the number of viewers of its nearest competitor, Dragon's Den, which was watched by 3.2m on BBC2. Freeman's programme built on last week's 5.9m audience for Kim Cattrall. Overall, the current series of the popular celebrity-genealogy show averaged 5.3m (and a twenty three per cent audience share). On the previous Wednesday, ITV had secured the lions share of the audience with its coverage of England's football friendly with the Netherlands attracting one-in-three viewers (6.8m). Last night's Champions League game between Athletico Madrid and Panathinaikos was unlikely to be as much of a draw and attracted only an average of 1.48m from 7.30 to 10pm. While Who Do You Think You Are? was on, this fell to an utterly miserable 1.2m, making ITV the least-watched of the five main channels between 9pm and 10pm.

The performers' union Equity has called on producers of The X Factor and other reality talent shows to pay contestants who appear in the latter stages of the programmes. In a motion to be tabled at next month's Trades Union Congress meeting, it will argue that participants are forced to enter 'restrictive contracts' because of a loophole in legislation relating to talent competitions. It reads: 'These programmes may be very popular with the public but are based on exploitation and humiliation of vulnerable people, which cannot be acceptable. The public's demand for high-quality entertainment should be met by professional drama and light entertainment which has been replaced by this cheap exploitation.' Equity states that The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent should follow the lead of BBC shows like How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?, Any Dream Will Do and I'd Do Anything and pay contestants at standard rates in the final rounds. However, a spokeswoman for producers Talkback Thames said that as talent contests these shows do not constitute employment, while adding that the union had not approached the company to discuss the issue. She said: 'Contestants choose to enter to compete for a substantial prize - a cash prize of one hundred thousand pounds and a performance on the Royal Variety Performance for Britain's Got Talent and a recording contract worth one million pounds on The X Factor. The shows also give ordinary people an opportunity to showcase their talents and potentially transform their lives.' Which, it would seem, therefore makes this morally untainted by the stain of exploitation. I'm sure many mill owners of the eighteen forties argued along similar lines about the pitious wretches that slaved, and died in their sweat shops: 'They don't have to work here for pittance wages if they don't want to. They can starve in the gutter instead, it's entirely their own choice.'

Tamzin Outhwaite has claimed that she is 'raring to go' for the second series of ITV's The Fixer. Outhwaite, who gave birth to her first child last summer, said that her character, Rose Chamberlain, is involved in a lot more action this time around. 'It was the first time I've worked since I had my baby, so for me it was like coming back to a family who had been very supportive during a very important time in my life,' she said. 'It felt really comfortable and I was really happy to back.' Discussing the plot of the new series, Outhwaite revealed: 'In the first series it seemed like these were just four damaged characters who just do one thing each, but in this series you realise that they each have a variety of skills and get to put those to rather effective use.' The thirty eight-year-old actress went on to say that filming with a gun in her hand was 'bittersweet.'

Former Hell's Kitchen contestant Jody Latham has ruled out a return to reality television. The twenty seven-year-old actor, who has previously starred in Shameless and ITV drama The Fixer, said that he only agreed to participate in the cooking reality series earlier this year to gain experience. 'The only reason I did it was because I wanted to open a restaurant and wanted to get an insight into what that might involve,' he admitted. 'It made me realise very quickly that it wasn't for me; it was clear it would be too much on top of the acting and I knew I just couldn't do it all.' He added: 'To watch Marco [Pierre White] at work was amazing and I did really love being out on the restaurant floor and chatting to everyone; I know I wasn't doing what I was supposed to, but I love the chat and I couldn't help it. I'm going to stick to what I know from now on. No more reality TV. And definitely no more cooking!'

Former Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel star James Marsters has signed up for a role on Caprica, according to Entertainment Weekly. According to reports, the forty six-year-old actor, who played Spike in the two cult Joss Whedon shows, will feature in at least three episodes in the role of Barnabus Greeley, a dangerous terrorist leader. He will be joined in the Battlestar Galactica prequel by the likes of Patton Oswalt, Sasha Roiz, Eric Stoltz, Esai Morales, Paula Malcomson and Polly Walker. Marsters - a tremendous actor and a particularly favourite of this blogger - was most recently seen playing Buzz Aldrin in ITV's Moonshoot. He has also appeared in Torchwood and Smallville and is additionally rumoured to be lined-up for a guest slot on the coming series of Lie to Me.

There is a distinctly feminine feel to the autumn season on BBC4, announced on Thursday morning. Helena Bonham Carter, Jane Horrocks and Anne-Marie Duff star as Enid Blyton, Gracie Fields and Margot Fonteyn in three dramas asking what drives women at the peak of their artistic powers. The dramas all look behind the women's public personas to explore the relationship between their art and their private lives. The relationship between a woman's private and public life is also examined in another drama, starring Sophie Okonedo as Winnie Mandela. And while Mrs Mandela illustrates how one woman's political struggle is influenced by her personal circumstances, another autumn season commission tells the story of a political struggle that sought to influence the personal lives of a generation of women. Women, by award-winning filmmaker Vanessa Engle, who produced the series Jews, charts the rise of feminism and considers its impact on the lives of women today.

Other themed seasons on the channel over the autumn and winter include Electric Revolution, about our relationship with technology, which feaures Syntax Era, a comedy drama about the fledgling home computer market starring Martin Freeman and Alexander Armstrong; This Is Scotland, a series about Scottish identity, The Play Season and The Glamour Season, a series of programmes about advent of glamour in the 1920s and 1930s. Diarmaid MacCulloch writes and presents a landmark series on the History of Christianity. BBC4's entertainment line-up features the excellent Andy Hamilton (right) and Reginald D Hunter in a new panel game, It's Only A Theory, the return of Charlie Brooker's Newswipe and the surreal news quiz We Need Answers. Science shows include Beautiful Minds, in which scientists are quizzed about why scientists matter and Professor Jim Al-Khalili asking how chaos theory can be used to explain the mysteries of the universe in The Secret Life of Chaos. Aristotle's Lagoon will investigate how the father of philosophy is also regarded as the founder of modern biology. Other documentary shows include The Lost Kingdoms of Africa.

Channel 4 is joining the 3D revolution by ordering UK content that can be viewed in 3D on standard TV sets. The broadcaster is planning a week of stripped peaktime 3D programming this autumn featuring footage of the Queen's Coronation plus a Derren Brown 3D spectacular. BSkyB plans to launch a 3DTV channel next year that will require a 3D-ready set and employ the new polarised 3D technology increasingly used in Hollywood movies. But C4 is using a different technology, based on ColorCode 3D glasses and has secured a deal with Sainsbury's to give away the glasses the week before transmission. The centrepiece of C4's season is the two part Renegade Pictures series The Queen in 3D. It will showcase a 3D colour newsreel footage of the Coronation shot in 1953 and a new 3D film shot by Arena TV at the Garter Ceremony at Windsor Castle in June. Renegade has worked with the British Film Institute and with 3D specialists Can Communicate on the series. Derren Brown's 3D Magic Spectacular, from Objective Productions, will feature specially shot tricks from a range of magicians, plus archive 3D footage. Objective is also compiling The Greatest Ever 3D Moments, including clips from Jaws 3D and the - gloriously awful - 1993 Doctor Who Children in Need special Dimensions in Time. Shudder at the very mention of its name.

BSkyB is the clear favourite to land the Virgin Media Television channel portfolio as the sale process moves towards its conclusion. Speculation is rife within VMTV that Sky, which is thought to be in a duel with US giant TimeWarner, could secure a deal for Living, Challenge, Bravo and Virgin 1 as soon as the end of the month. One senior source said: 'When [chief executive] Malcolm Wall left earlier this year, we thought that was it. Speculation went quiet but now it's picking up again. We are expecting something in our inbox any day now telling us we are joining Sky.' Another source said although it would 'hurt Virgin Media to sell to Sky', the latter was the only business that 'either could or would' stump up enough cash. Channel 4, NBC Universal and RTL were all thought to be in the running but have now cooled their interest, leaving Turner Broadcasting-owner TimeWarner and Sky. One source said that if Sky bought the channels, they could form part of a portfolio headed by Sky1 director of programmes Stuart Murphy. 'A deal makes clear strategic sense for Sky but it's very complex,' noted one source. 'Both parties would want securities [about carriage], and there's a dilemma for Virgin Media between Sky's cash and the strategic comfort of selling to a US company like Time Warner [rather than its biggest UK rival].' In March, Virgin Media appointed UBS to advise it on a sale of the VMTV division. VMTV holds a fifty per cent stake in UKTV, but that part of the business is being sold separately.

BBC4 is to expand its Music Britannia format to heavy metal and electro-pop as part of a major season of arts and culture programming. The one-off Synth Britannia and Metal Britannia documentaries will sit alongside Latin Music, a four part series co-produced for WGBH that documents the spread of Latino music and immigration across North America and the Caribbean. All three of these are in-house productions. The channel will also take a look at visual art - in line with a wider BBC2/BBC4 Modern Beauty season - with a Russian follow-on from BBC4's successful The Art Of Spain and The Art Of Italy among its key commissions. The three-part The Art Of Russia encompasses the age of icon and the emergence of Grand Baroque and will be produced in-house, in tandem with For Art's Sake: The Story Of Ballet Russes. This examines Ballet Russes' impact on contemporary art and design. BBC4 controller Richard Klein said: 'BBC4 is curious about art and culture's contribution to and place in society. We're exploring this through a unique range of programmes ranging from high-quality dramas with big-name stars through to authored documentaries on modern art and live performances of classical music.' Meanwhile, Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British ambassador to the US who sparked controversy in 2005 with his candid memoirs, will front The Great Offices, a three-part Wingspan documentary about Britain's three big political institutions - the Foreign Office, the Home Office and the Treasury. The shows will ask how they have shaped our lives.

Monarch Of The Glen creator Michael Chaplin is adapting the latest novel by the author of Goodnight Mister Tom for ITV. Michelle Magorian's new novel, Just Henry, is a post-war thriller targeted at early-teens and is being developed by ITV Studios as a ninety minute family drama. ITV has not yet greenlit the production, but the broadcaster confirmed that controller of drama commissioning Laura Mackie liked the script. Just Henry, which was published last year, centres on a young film enthusiast whose father died in the war. When his school sets a group project, Henry is disgusted to be teamed with the son of a man who went AWOL and a boy who was born illegitimately. However, when a women Henry meets at the cinema lends him a camera for the project, he makes a discovery that throws his world into turmoil and makes him reappraise his judgemental behaviour. 'Henry will need his new friends when he processes the film and makes an alarming discovery. Like a bomb waiting to explode, Henry's world is about to unravel,' said Magorian's publisher, Egmont. Magorian's Goodnight Mister Tom, another teen novel set in wartime Britain, was a major hit for ITV in 1999. The production starred John Thaw as the eponymous Tom Oakley and was directed by Jack Gold.

UK TV's Good Food has acquired twenty eight hours of content featuring the best Australian culinary talent, including three series from Fremantle Media Enterprises. Okay, okay, get your jokes about shrimps, barbies and lager out of the way now. And, now we're done. The FME shows include the first two six-part seasons of Four Ingredients, which features Aussie housewives Kim McCosker and Rachael Bermingham making meals with four ingredients or fewer. Also from FME are the seven-part Bill's Holiday, which follows chef Bill Granger showcasing his trademark dishes. Good Food has also acquired the third series of SBS Australia's Food Safari and Good Chef, Bad Chef, a twelve episode format from Short Attention that features nutritionist Janella Percell and chef Gary Mehigan. The shows were ordered by channel head Richard Kingsbury and UKTV director of factual, lifestyle and new media Jane Mote. The deals were brokered by acquisitions executive Nicki McDermott and the shows will all air later this year.

Blinkbox has secured its most important content deal to date, signing an agreement with BBC Worldwide that will see classic Doctor Who and recent shows such as That Mitchell And Webb Look and Hustle streamed for free. More than two hundred hours of free BBC drama, comedy and natural history shows will be supported by advertising on the Blinkbox site. They include The League Of Gentlemen, Bodies, The Young Ones, Blue Planet and recent BBC2 sitcom Lab Rats. Each show is offered in full, preceded by a short advert. A further seventy five hours of BBC shows will be sold on a download-to-own basis, including the first two series of Gavin And Stacey, all three series of The Mighty Boosh and recent series of [Spooks] and Top Gear. The programmes are likely to be offered for £1.89 per episode. BBCW is the first company linked to a UK broadcaster to licence content to Blinkbox, which already offers shows from All3Media, Fremantle Media and Aardman. BBCW has already sold a similar range of shows to Microsoft's new MSN Video Player but this is the first time it has licensed content to a UK-based operator. Since its launch in April last year, Blinkbox has amassed more than five thousand movie and TV titles and has around seven hundred and sixty thousand unique users. The BBCW deal aims to position Blinkbox as a home for archive UK content as competition heats up to fill the void left by the abandoned pan-broadcaster service Project Kangaroo. US multi-broadcaster platform Hulu is preparing for a UK launch and Arqiva is developing a video-on-demand service after acquiring the assets of Kangaroo. Blinkbox chief executive and co-founder Michael Comish said: 'There's been a lot of hype around foreign companies coming to the UK. We are UK-based, UK-financed and UK-staffed.'

BSkyB could make as much as eighty million pounds per year through selling ESPN's new football channel as part of its premium sports offering, provided it can attract two million subscribers. ESPN, which picked up the rights to forty six live Premier League matches this season after the demise of Setanta's UK business, broadcast its first match on Saturday. The fixture, which saw Arsenal beat Everton 6-1, attracted a fifteen-minute peak of almost five hundred thousand viewers and an average of four hundred and twenty eight thousand. Disney-owned ESPN has struck distribution deals with several broadcasters, including BSkyB, to sell its new ESPN UK channel, featuring the live Premier League matches, as part of a retail package. Analysts at Citigroup estimate that BSkyB makes around two pounds fifty a month on each subscriber who takes up ESPN's new channel.

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