Sir Peter Bazalgette surveys an elaborate network of fencing snaking through Notting Hill Gate, where a huge leak recently turned the West London thoroughfare into a lake.
We’ve been discussing his great-great-grandfather – the engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette, who masterminded the capital’s Victorian sewer system – and the ITV chairman and arts grandee draws an analogy with the businesses he’s desperately trying to safeguard today.
He reckons the creative industries – from TV and radio to music, video games and advertising – are worth at least £112billion to Britain and could add one million jobs by 2030.
But he worries those sectors will be forgotten as politicians try to revive the economy later this year.
Defence: Bazalgette says public service broadcasting was vital in 2020
‘People used to say, “Why has everybody heard of Isambard Kingdom Brunel [the prolific designer of docklands, railways, bridges and tunnels] but not Joseph Bazalgette?”
‘The reason was you couldn’t see what he did, it was mostly underground. With the creative industries, you’re dealing with a sector made up of small companies and talented individuals, many of whom work behind the scenes.
‘So the benefit of the Government supporting them is much more difficult to grasp than, say, thousands of new jobs in the car industry – but it’s just as important. Creative industries do matter. We’re a coiled spring ready to deliver post-Brexit, post-Covid.’
As we take a (socially distanced) stroll around Hyde Park, Bazalgette, 67 – his tall frame protected from the chill by a chunky knit jumper, bottle green jacket and snappy red flat cap – explains how Ministers can unleash that coil.
Part of the answer is the Creative Industries Clusters Programme, which paid for nine hubs that linked universities to local creative businesses to boost research. He wants to ‘turbo charge the most successful’ hubs and set up more.
Another scheme is Studio UK – a new laboratory that would harness robotics, 5G and real-time game engines, where green-screen backdrops can be applied while filming live with actors. The lab would ‘revolutionise the way we make drama’, he says.
‘This lab could put Britain at the leading edge of studio production. Let’s put it outside London and the South East, creating a supply chain around it.’
Bazalgette overcame a bout of Covid in October and kicks a well-chewed tennis ball back to a lively cocker spaniel as we walk, tutting at a woman feeding a gaggle of parakeets.
Public service TV is part of national resilience
Known as the man who changed Britain by bringing the Big Brother format over from Holland in 2000 while at producer Endemol, he has held a string of top roles since: president of the Royal Television Society, chairman of the Arts Council, deputy chairman of the National Film School and now chairman of the council of the Royal College of Arts.
Now his main responsibility is ITV, which is facing up to some tricky existential questions along with traditional broadcast rivals such as the BBC.
Last year, only 38 per cent of viewing by 16 to 34-year-olds was through traditional TV channels. One in four streaming viewers said they could imagine watching no broadcast TV at all in five years’ time.
Bazalgette is staunch in his defence of broadcasting’s role in society: ‘If we were in any doubt about the value of public service broadcasting, then 2020 was its finest hour.
‘It stepped up to the mark to keep producing, to keep the nation informed, to properly hold the Government to account and to keep everybody’s spirits up.
Netflix is great and they’re spending more than $1billion this year on content. But if it’s hours [of TV] you’re talking about, then it’s no contest – there are thousands of hours on BBC, ITV, Channels 4 and 5. Those are programmes by us, for us and about us [in the UK].’
ITV chief executive Carolyn McCall has seen ITV share price fall 20% over the last 12 months
Ofcom, the regulator, agrees and has called for laws to be overhauled to protect public sector broadcasters.
Bazalgette adds: ‘We’ve always been told the next world war will be nuclear, but I say the next world war will be digital and it’s already started – hence Russian interference in elections and other bad things that happen online.
‘Public service broadcasting is part of national resilience, if the country was ever under threat and the internet went down, the Freeview signal on your aerial is there.’
ITV’s big dilemma is balancing its dedication to a huge live audience – which still hits 12million plus for shows such as I’m A Celebrity – with investment streaming services such as ITV Hub and BritBox, which are more popular among younger viewers.
Set against the backdrop of a fall in advertising revenues, it’s a tough task for chief executive Carolyn McCall, who has seen the share price fall 20 per cent over the last 12 months.
One positive is industry discussions to create a new app for smart TVs that shows live broadcasts and catch-up programming from ITV, the BBC and Channel 4 and 5 in one place. And Bazalgette reveals that McCall is about to overhaul the ITV Hub – and start making shows specifically for streaming purposes.
‘When you go into ITV Hub, the experience is not as personal or swift or seamless as the experience you get on Netflix,’ he admits. ‘That is going to change quite soon.
‘At the moment, you’ll tend to find content that has been shown on the schedule already and you’ll go there for a catch-up. In the future it’s going to become a destination for content in its own right and we’re going to be, from now really, commissioning content specifically for ITV Hub.’
He points to the success of Fleabag on iPlayer and Channel 4’s All 4 platform, which boasts a giant collection of Scandi noir drama, as a model to target. He will step down as chairman in May 2022.
So what place does reality TV have in Bazalgette’s vision?
The man behind the UK’s version of Big Brother chuckles: ‘People have been asking me if reality TV is dead for 20 years!’
He does, however, think the public is ready for a gentler tone of reality show than in recent years.
‘I’m A Celebrity this year was a love fest between people taking part, they were interested in each other, wanted to know their life stories.
‘Five years ago, it would have disappointed but I think there was a change of tone and the country needed it. People are looking for good news, a connection.’
Sir Peter Bazalgette, 67: Call My Agent fan
Lives: West London.
Family: Wife Hilary Newiss, (a non-executive director in science and culture sectors) and two children.
Hobbies: Pre-Covid – opera and theatre; Now – online bridge and sweet pea cultivation.
Education: Dulwich College and Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge.
First job: BBC news trainee.
Favourite book: Currently – On Chapel Sands, by Laura Cumming.
Music: Everything from Handel to Jack Hylton and Adele.
What are you binge-watching?: Call My Agent (‘Now in mourning after final series!’)
Proudest moment: ITV’s essential news, Daytime, soaps during Covid.
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