Nigel Pickard: Quick-change artist

CITV controller of kids programs Nigel Pickard is credited with making a major impact on CITV - for the better - in a remarkably short timeframe. In addition to good intuitions as to what kids want to watch, he is also...
May 1, 2000

CITV controller of kids programs Nigel Pickard is credited with making a major impact on CITV – for the better – in a remarkably short timeframe. In addition to good intuitions as to what kids want to watch, he is also cited for having a sympathetic understanding of the market realities producers face. Since Pickard’s formula for programming success includes a solution that suits both camps’ requirements – longer commissions – all in all, it’s a happy confluence for both sides of the Brit kid TV screen.

IN the two years since ITV controller of children’s and youth programs Nigel Pickard got the job he had ‘always coveted’, there is no question that the channel’s output has been transformed.

A coherent on-screen look, a passionate commitment to U.K.-originated shows and a sensitivity to the needs of producers have all laid the foundations for a concerted attack on the BBC’s traditional dominance in the kids’ arena. True, Children’s BBC (CBBC) still wins major swathes of the schedule, but there have been some startling successes under Pickard’s stewardship of Children’s ITV (CITV).

SMTV:Live’s victory on Saturday mornings against BBC juggernaut Live & Kicking is the most notable achievement. But dramas like The Worst Witch from United Productions and My Parents are Aliens from Granada have also been resounding successes. In animation, Pickard is currently commissioning around 30 shows a year-adding up to a slate that is as diverse as anything on offer at CBBC.

Despite the vitality of his schedule, Pickard does not crow about successes like Saturday morning-even though he is widely regarded as having played a hands-on role in beating CBBC. He insists that ‘the BBC is fantastically strong and tremendously experienced. They will come back strongly and I hope they do. Two confident, quality mainstream channels is good for kids.’

Equally, he does not attempt to dissemble over CITV’s failings-even though he might justifiably blame them on weaknesses in the ITV structure. He accepts that BBC preschool hit Tweenies ‘has rocked the boat for us. It is a brilliantly marketed show and gives them a great platform for their daily schedule. It has forced us to look at ways of making our preschool output more coherent.’

Pickard’s empire currently consists of a weekday block between 3:20 p.m. and 5:05 p.m. and a Saturday morning slot which usually runs from 9:25 a.m. to 12:25 p.m. He spends £45 million a year on commissions and acquisitions with the bulk targeted at the fall and winter. This year, he reckons to have commissioned around 90 new and returning shows across all genres.

Although two years is not really long enough for a kid’s controller to find the perfect mix of shows, Pickard’s impact on CITV was profound and immediate in many respects. The most explicit was branding and on-air continuity. He has ploughed significant investment into live presentation and worked hard to develop CITV as a brand. ‘One thing I learned working in cable and satellite was the power of marketing,’ he says. ‘When the audience has such wide choice, you have to find a way to create familiarity and get your message across.’

The other significant development was Pickard’s approach to producers. Quick commissioning decisions, long-term planning, longer runs of episodes and an intuitive grasp of the kid’s funding model have been the hallmarks of his approach. ‘There is a danger in bleating about budgets because we all know the game,’ he says. ‘But if CITV is only providing 30% of the budget, we have to allow producers sensible lead times to finance and produce a show properly.’

For Pickard, the worst scenario is the commissioned producer who disguises funding problems until the last moment. ‘I’d rather have a phone call early on so I can look at ways of rescheduling a series. I can’t handle too many delays. But if a show is good enough at time of commissioning and during development then it will still be good if it’s three months late.’

Long runs and early planning have drawbacks, admits Pickard-who is currently working on projects for 2002-2003. ‘If you back a bad show over 13 or 26 episodes then you are stuck with it,’ he says-in a tone that suggests there have been one or two. But this potential danger is more than outweighed by the familiarity that long runs bring to the CITV line-up. ‘Some producers will find this contentious but I think we still have too many titles on CITV,’ he says. ‘The 90 series a year we commission is simply too many for the audience to concentrate on. I still want as many producers as possible to offer us things. But if we had fewer shows, we could get behind them with decent levels of PR and marketing.’

Pickard is conscious of the dangers in this approach. ‘There has got to be some flexibility, otherwise your schedule gets formulaic and tedious. CITV always has to have the ability to introduce a commercial or narrative stunt.’

A good example of this is Pickard’s decision to commission a Zenith live action adaptation of RM Ballantyne’s classic novel The Coral Island that was shot in South Africa. The show will air in four half-hour episodes over a two week summer period and then as a TV movie during Christmas 2000. He admits The Coral Island is a risk-but one he is willing to pursue. He is already considering adaptations of Kidnapped and Journey through Midnight-which tells the story of two boys caught up in the post-war partition of India and Pakistan. ‘If it goes well, then three years from now we might have a nice season of five or six films,’ muses Pickard.

In scheduling terms, Saturday morning and preschool have seen the greatest level of commitment from Pickard. SMTV’s weekly presence all year round has done much to drive its popularity. Shows like Carlton/ Henson’s Mopatop’s Shop and United’s Dog & Duck have both been given runs of between 200-260 episodes already and are key to Pickard’s plans for the next three to four years.

Unlike the BBC, however, Pickard cannot air his preschool shows twice a day. Neither can he co-ordinate licensing and broadcast windows in the same way as the corporation because of the federal structure of the ITV system.

Nevertheless, tackling Tweenies is his

priority in the coming year. He claims to have worked out a plan of attack but is not

prepared to reveal it at this stage. Having worked so hard to establish CITV as a brand, however, it is unlikely to be a pres-

chool sub-brand.

A theme running through Pickard’s CITV is his commitment to British originations. Acquisitions like Sabrina and Pokémon have been two of his biggest hits, but where possible he wants to back British talent. ‘People might think I am a xenophobe. But as the biggest commercial broadcaster, I think it is incumbent on ITV to back British talent like Cosgrove Hall, Aardman, Hit, Telemagination and Honeycomb. Too much money has gone into driving other people’s animation economies.’

As part of his effort to back British creativity, Pickard is working with consultant Mike Robinson ‘to see if there are things we could be doing with licence fee incentives so that more is done in the U.K. Even if I am not the immediate beneficiary of that, the industry might be.’

As a corollary of this, Pickard refuses to bring U.S.-owned thematic channels into copro deals. ‘Channels like Nick do a great job but they should be contributing more to U.K. production. I won’t use my budget to subsidize them. If we really want people to watch our shows, then CITV has to be the only place they can find them.’ The only exception is acquisitions where Pickard is forced to adopt a pragmatic view on windowing of rights.

As with preschool and Saturday mornings, the battle with the BBC has its highs and lows. Honeycomb’s Grizzly Tales rates as a Pickard favorite-and he is broadly pleased with the schedule’s performance after 4 p.m. He also praises the Eva stopframe series Hilltop Hospital and Henson’s Construction Site-which has been recommissioned. ‘I generally give shows time to breath. Often the second series will learn from the mistakes of the first. But if it doesn’t make it after two series then I tend to call it a day.’

Factual series like Art Attack (Media Merchants), Quick Trick Show (Objective Productions), Top Ten of Everything (United) and the sports show Energise (Rocking Horse Productions) have created a robust factual proposition. The speed that The Worst Witch reached 40 episodes underlines the importance he places on that show. Another drama shaping up well is Granada’s Big Meg, Little Meg (7 x 25 min.)-though not all live action works as well as he’d like. Despite being a fan of Lifeforce, Pickard says it underperformed in the schedule.

Pickard’s own background as a producer tended to weigh towards live action. Although he is obviously up to speed with the funding of animation, he wants to ‘spend more time with the animation studios. I’m keen to get to know more of the people with ideas though it is hard to find time in a job like this.’

Aside from sorting out preschool, Pickard needs to find a way of making SM:TV less reliant on the strength of its three leads, Ant, Dec and Cait. He claims to be working on this but is currently enjoying the glow of the show’s

success. ‘ITV hasn’t done this well on Saturday morning in years.’

New shows coming up include Preston Pig (from Link), Vampires, Pirates & Aliens (ITEL), Last Polar Bears (Telemagination), Twins and Fetch the Vet-which are both from Flextech. He is also poised to sign off on a new batch of commissions.

The inevitable question is how long he wants to stay in the CITV job-assuming he has the final say in the matter. As a respected producer, he admits that he still enjoys rolling his sleeves up and getting stuck in. But the reality is that some sort of commissioning role at the BBC or BBC World- wide is the only obvious place for him to move to in the U.K. BBC director general Greg Dyke has given him a high profile job before (see pg. 68)-so it would not be a surprise if it happened again. This of course reckons without Pickard’s evident satisfaction at CITV. ‘There is still a big job to be done here,’ he stresses. ‘And we are moving ahead fast with the launch of a digital channel and our online plans (see pg. 62).’

Most people who have had regular dealings with Pickard view him as an honest broker who is quick to give credit where it is due. Sure enough, his parting comment is that: ‘I don’t want to give the impression we sit here and laud it up. The producers who deliver perfectly pitched shows to brief are the ones who make it all happen.’The commissioning job is the easy bit.’

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