The Tough TV Lessons Michael Has Taught Me

Article excerpt


By Esther Rantzen

This is not the first time Michael Grade has been parachuted in to save the BBC.

When its share of the audience fell to a fraction of ITV's in 1984, something had to be done quickly.

We Corporation kids were a bit sniffy at the time. What did this brash young mogul, the ex-sports columnist, late of London Weekend Television, have to teach us?

Plenty. First of all, he dazzled us with magic. Television has the oil tanker problem - it takes some time to slam the brakes on or correct the steering.

When he arrived he found that the money to commission new programmes had already been spent. So Michael took the schedules home and tinkered with the arrangement of existing programmes. They were just small adjustments, like moving the Japanese prisoner-of-war camp drama, Tenko, from Thursday night to Sundays. But its audience soared from five million to eleven million overnight.

He moved Panorama to a slightly later slot on Mondays, where once again its audience improved. The public attacks on a failing BBC stopped and morale leaped.

Now he's back, and there is jubilation in the ranks. Not just because he is a conjuror and a showman. He is much more.

I first met him when I had just finished a not very distinguished series called That's Family Life, which he was kind about. 'It put subjects on the agenda that the whole family could talk about together,' he said.

One of his management theories, he later told me, was that you have to earn the right to say no. Praise where praise is due, and then criticise if you have to. The result is that his criticisms are not resented - they are acted upon. It helps, of course, that he is usually right, though fans of Dr Who and Miss World, both of which he axed, would not agree.

He had just arrived at the BBC, fresh from America, when he called me in to tell me how concerned he was about drug abuse there. He feared that this country was just a few years from going down the same tragic road. He wanted me to co-present with Nick Ross a special programme about the dangers.

For the programme, Drugwatch, we conducted a survey among viewers, which proved that the danger was already present. The survey also showed that cannabis, far from being harmless, could create psychosis and addiction.

The programme was endorsed by the Princess of Wales and created a network of support groups for addicts and their families, which still exists today. It was a success - not a huge ratings winner, but groundbreaking and valuable.

Drugwatch was Grade's invention and it showed what could be done.

The next year I went back to him with a letter I'd received from the mother of an abused child. I suggested that we could make a similar programme about child abuse, based on viewers' experiences. He read the letter, then asked: 'How long do you need?' We suggested 90 minutes. He thought for a millisecond, then said: 'How about Thursday night?' There were no focus groups, no professional schedulers at his elbow. …