The chief executive of ITV has told MPs the broadcaster is “fighting for every eyeball we get” as viewing habits change.
Dame Carolyn McCall said public service broadcasters were facing “many challenges” as viewers migrated to services like Netflix and YouTube.
But she said the Covid-19 pandemic had “reinforced the value” of channels like ITV, the BBC and Channel 4.
ITV’s news and daytime shows have seen bigger audiences during lockdown.
“We’re an incredibly vital connector. We give them unifying moments, whether it’s through sport or drama or soaps,” said Dame Carolyn.
“We reflect society but we also shape society for good – and I think people have really realised the value of that is significant.”
The chief executive went on to call for a revamp of the 2003 broadcasting act, to ensure public service channels could operate on a “level playing field” – pointing out that British broadcasters were often being pushed out of the programme guides on smart TVs.
Dame Carolyn, who took over as the chief executive of ITV in 2018, was addressing a Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee inquiry into the future of public service broadcasting.
She said that advertising “halved overnight” once the pandemic hit, and that all of the broadcaster’s productions worldwide ground to a halt.
In April, senior executives including Dame Carolyn, accepted a 20% pay cut, while roughly 1,000 staff were furloughed and programmes like Love Island and Britain’s Got Talent were postponed or cancelled.
The chief executive said 38 productions were now back on track, with furloughed staff returning to work.
“We are not producing drama… because the distancing rules are very difficult,” she told MPs. “They are people who will come off furlough last.”
She added that, while the summer schedule would contain a large volume of repeats due in part to cancellation of the Euros football tournament and Love Island, ITV hoped to have more programmes back on the air for the autumn.
These included the postponed finals for The Voice UK and Britain’s Got Talent, as well as a new series of the breakout hit The Masked Singer.
David Tennant’s much-anticipated true crime series Des will also air in the autumn, after being delayed from the spring, she confirmed.
However, Dame Carolyn admitted that advertising was still “nowhere near what is was,” adding: “It will only return with consumer confidence and business confidence.”
‘Lack of contrition’ over Jeremy Kyle
MPs also took the opportunity to question Dame Carolyn over the Jeremy Kyle Show, which is the subject of a separate House Of Commons investigation into reality TV and aftercare for members of the public who appear on such shows.
Asked if she was proud of the show’s 15-year tenure on the schedules, Dame Carolyn said: “It was a highly regulated show, it was a conflict resolution show, it was not to everyone’s tastes.
“It may surprise you to know that I actually got hundreds of emails complaining about stopping the show when we stopped it because they thought it was their own outlet of being able to listen and understand problems that were in their own lives.”
Committee chairman Julian Knight argued back, saying the treatment of the show’s guests was “outrageous”
“They were baited over a long period of time. My jaw is dropping at the lack of contrition here from ITV and from yourself as a chief executive,” he said.
Dame Carolyn said that the show had adhered to the broadcasting code, and that more than a million people watched it every day on ITV.
Mr Knight replied: “The Roman Coliseum held 55,000, it doesn’t mean because it was popular it was right.”
After a tense exchange, Dame Carolyn eventually said: “You look at it [the show] and you wonder how it could have been on for so long, I agree with you.”
‘I wouldn’t say no’
She added: “We have said that we will not be doing a show like the Jeremy Kyle Show again. I have been very clear about that.”
Dame Carolyn went on to explain how the broadcaster’s approach to aftercare for reality show contestants had changed since she joined the company in 2018.
“There is aftercare, not just available optionally – but we ask all participants in a show to have a session with a counsellor for quite some weeks after a show, so much longer than before,” she said.
“In the past it was optional. People could say, ‘no, I don’t need it’. We now say, ‘You’re coming out of a reality TV show where you have been locked down, it’s important that you readjust to normal life.'”
She added: “In the last three or four years, the explosion in social media has made things very, very different for any participant on any show. And we have had to take account of that in a very different way to shows that would have been on three years ago.”
When asked by MP Kevin Brennan if she would let her own children go on Love Island, she replied: “I would say if they were completely appraised of it… I wouldn’t say no.”