Interview: Sir Peter Bazalgette: television entrepreneur

Sir Peter Bazalgette. Photo Courtesy: Guardian Media Group/Richard Saker

By Ashley Coates. Published: 14/10/2013

When people say, “I’ve been lucky” or “you’ve been lucky” I always think to myself, “people make their luck”.

Over the last 15 years, Peter Bazalgette has brought some of the best known television formats to our screens. He founded his own production company, Bazal, in the early 90s, making the most of the experience he built up at the BBC as a producer. He is responsible for the creation of some of the most important entertainment shows in recent television history, including Ready Steady Cook, Changing Rooms and Ground Force.

Crucially, these programmes were not only popular in the UK, but many were sold abroad, in as many as 30 countries. Peter is perhaps best known as the man that brought Big Brother to the UK, starting a ten year long craze that dominated the news as much as it dominated Channel 4’s evening schedule. The popularity of the series has been a major factor in the success of Endemol, the international production company that absorbed Bazal in the early 90s. During his time as the Chair of Endemol UK and Creative Director of the Endemol Group, the value of the firm trebled to €3.2 billion.

Remarkably Peter barely watched television for the first 12 years of his life, as his parents never bought one. He grew up in London and joined the BBC as a news trainee after graduating from Cambridge with a third in law.

A university friend, Jon Makinson, now chairman of Penguin and the National Theatre, has described him as a “superstar of the [Cambridge] union. His trademark qualities are that he manages to be both irreverent and self-deprecating on the one hand, and yet serious and thoughtful on the other, all features that were well in evidence in his Cambridge days”.

As of January 2013, Peter has been Chair of the Arts Council England. He has served on a number of boards at major media organisations including ITV, the Royal Television Society, the English National Opera and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

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Let’s start with Cambridge. You were President of the very prestigious Cambridge Union, whose speakers have included Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan, but you left with a third.

Actually I very nearly didn’t get into university at all for that matter! My contemporaries are all about two or three years younger than me. I had reasonable A-Levels, I don’t know how I managed to ruin my entrance to universities but everyone turned me down the first time round. So then I went off and taught in a school for a year before getting into Cambridge, not to the college I applied for but to another college which gave me an interview on the 13th hour. I got a poor degree because I spent all my time running the Union.

Were you one of those students who allowed their co-curricular activities to consume all their energies?

In those days it was a very liberal regime, if you were doing lots of stuff they didn’t come and beat you up because you weren’t taking your work seriously. My son is at Cambridge at the moment and it’s very different today, they take how hard you are working very seriously and keep a close eye on you. In my day there was an amused tolerance. I ran the Union and I did some student journalism and had a great time. To be honest I was lucky to get a third, so it’s not a good example to anyone, least of all my son!

But the experience was probably more useful than if you had buried your head in books?

Yes and having done student journalism and been involved in the politics of the university, when I applied to be a BBC news trainee, I had a pretty good idea of journalism as an industry and a good understanding of politics.

They must have been aware of what the Cambridge Union is and what your role there would have involved.

Yes today though I don’t think they would have given me a job if they knew I got a third. Back then they didn’t seem to care what the degree was but people are much more concerned by the quality of the degree today, quite rightly too.

You joined the BBC’s graduate news scheme before becoming a researcher, working with Ester Ranzten for a while before progressing to being a producer, working on Food & Drink amongst other programmes. Apart from gaining an understanding of the production environment, what was it that led you to starting your own company and working on your own formats? Were you thinking “I can do this better”?

I toyed with a bit of presenting but really I was acting as a producer and an assistant producer, or researcher. I specialised in programmes like That’s Life, which was a bit like a local newspaper on national television and it had funny items and human interest stories but it also had some quite hard consumer stories as well and it was a way of making factual information entertaining.

It was a very, very formative experience working with Ester Ranzten on that programme because it gave me an interest in how can we make information entertaining. Everything I did not long afterwards in the 90s with Ready Steady Cook and Ground Force was about taking stuff that people wanted information on and making it more entertaining and creating a bigger audience for it. So that was a desire to entertain and to inform.

The other aspect I would point out from an entrepreneurial point-of-view is that those of us who had about ten years experience were therefore getting into our 30s when a big opportunity arose, which was the emergence of the independent production sector. TV was once solely in the hands of the BBC and ITV and not only were the channels in their hands but all the production was in-house. There was no diversified, competitive, content industry.

Margaret Thatcher’s government had brought in Channel 4 in the 80s which was only allowed to commission from independent producers, and that really created the independent sector. Then in 1988 they brought in another rule which meant the BBC and ITV would have to commission from independent producers, thus liberalising this very valuable asset called the broadcasting spectrum. What it meant in the 80s was those of us that had enough experience had an opportunity to capitalise on it. When broadcasting liberalised I happened to be there and I happened to be the right age.

What was the process like for creating hit shows like Changing Rooms and Ready Steady Cook for example? Where did those ideas come from and how much did you rely on data to inform the development process?

If you’re creating hit shows there are one or two pretty important provocations to make it happen. One is that you get a brilliant brief, and there were a couple of people running the channels at the BBC in those days who were very clever. I called them “cool hunters”, by which I mean they were able to sniff the wind and say “I think we ought to have a primetime programme about DIY and interiors”.

This was when B&Q, garden centres and Ikea were taking off and people had more money to spend improving their homes and magazines covering the subject were proliferating. Then they said to people like me, humble producers, “I think we need to have a programme about this” and without having had that call a producer probably wouldn’t go off and invent the show.

So that is number one, a very intelligent and provocative brief. Number two, extreme pressure! Let me give you an example, for Changing Rooms, the guy running BBC2 had said, “you’ve got to come up with a show about DIY and interiors, can you make it entertaining, like Ready Steady Cook?”. I got on a train at Tottenham Court Road in Central London and I was traveling to Television Centre in West London and I turned to my producer and said, “this idea sucks doesn’t it?!” She agreed that it wasn’t very good so I said, “we have eight stops to think of another idea”, and at Holland Park, which was two-thirds of the way there I said, more in desperation than anything else, “what would it be like if two neighbours swapped houses and did up rooms in each others’ houses?” So we pitched it and it went down very well and got commissioned.

You mentioned data and market research, that feeds into the brief in the first place and it can inform the creative process. Before we produced Ground Force, gardening had never had more than three million viewers on BBC2. Ground Force ended up with twelve million viewers on BBC1 and that was informed by the fact that we saw some research which informed us that young people were treating their gardens like they were treating their interiors.

They weren’t willing to plant some seeds and wait six months and learn how to garden. People wanted instant makeovers of gardens. Then in the creative process you need the right people as well, you need the right cast and crew.

You said somewhere that television has a lot to learn from advertising, in terms of the origination of creative ideas, what did you mean?

Advertising lives or dies by the quality of its ideas. It is organised for creativity which is why they have creative directors, I was the first person in TV to call myself a creative director and I was trying to steal their way of working. They have a very organised system where they have creative briefs and planners, who define that brief before it goes to the creatives who come up with a creative solution. That is what you need for TV too.

Big Brother was already a successful format in the Netherlands before you brought it to the UK, and then rolled it out internationally. What were you trying to achieve with the programme in the UK and what adjustments did you need to make to the format to make it the success that it became?

Probably two things and in this we had the help of Channel 4 as well. Point one, we needed to make it more intense and point two, we had to make it more cool. The Dutch format only had an expulsion every two weeks and the Director of Programming at Channel 4 decided we needed an expulsion every week which is what lead to the Friday night big event, so that was a very shrewd observation of Channel 4’s, rather than our own.

In terms of making it more cool, much of this was aesthetic. The whole design and feel of the Dutch show made it look a bit like a 1970s light entertainment show so our producers revamped the setting, Elementfour came up with this iconic theme tune for it, and it was given the eye for the logo. The Dutch wanted to stop us doing it as they thought the show should be done exactly in their format everywhere around the world. That’s how Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? had worked, the same studio, same layout, same lighting everywhere around the world. I’m afraid we subverted that.

This is a more introspective question and you don’t have to answer it if you don’t want to but how do you account for your own success?

I think the number one point would be carpe diem [seize the day], it’s seizing opportunities. When people say, “I’ve been lucky” or “you’ve been lucky” I always think to myself, “people make their luck”. I had no idea what I was going to do and I had no idea what direction it was going to go in but I do feel at several points I seized opportunities. I seized an opportunity to join the BBC and seized the opportunity to set up my own production company. You don’t have to have a grand plan but you do have to have the balls to seize opportunities.

What would you say to someone who is starting out in the creative industries?

I would say that, compared to when I got into it, it’s much more liberalised and freelance. That’s a good and a bad thing, the bad part of it is, there isn’t a career structure like there used to be when there were two or three large companies. The good side to this is that there are many more opportunities for you to decide your own destiny and jump about and do different things.

There is more opportunity to do what you want to do because you are not entering a big bureaucratic entity, which you would have entered into in my day. But the main point I would make is that because it’s liberalised, you will succeed if you are determined enough but only if you are determined enough. You will have to knock doors down, you will have to send out 100 emails, you will have to analyse the marketplace and you may have to work as a runner. It does require you to grit your teeth but don’t get depressed because if you do try hard enough you will succeed.

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