'Comedy is on ITV's conscience' admits ITV director of television Peter Fincham

ITV's Director of Television Peter Fincham always knew that the unique alignment of national events in 2012 was going to make it a challenging year for the broadcaster but he's looking forward to better times ahead as ITV starts to unveil its autumn schedule.

He also acknowledged that his channel has to improve its comedy output but is dismissive of the threat from Sky.

"The BBC did a fine job of covering the Olympics," admits Fincham before claiming there was an upside for ITV: "it proved once again that there's an appetite for big events in this country" - good news for ITV as their most popular programming is built around big events.

Like the other terrestrial TV controllers at this year's Festival, Fincham faced questions about the emerging threat of Sky as a maker of original content. In assessing the risk they pose, he's keen to highlight that the satellite broadcaster has an entirely different business model. He points out that despite the fanfare of its launch, Sky Atlantic sometimes only attracts an audience of around 15,000.

Because Sky is not ratings-driven, it can afford to experiment. Similarly the BBC can use its second terrestrial channel as a nursery slope for developing new programming and he notes that some of BBC One's biggest successes such as 'The Apprentice' and 'Masterchef' started life on BBC Two.

Programming on ITV has to hit the ground running and will be judged a failure unless it immediately gains a big audience.

Not for the first time during his tenure, Fincham was obliged to acknowledge the poverty of ITV's comedy offering. "Comedy is on ITV's conscience," he admits. Part of the problem has been the tendency to schedule hour-long dramas at nine o'clock because of a sense that the station's audience wants "a main course" at that point in their evening.

Fincham says ITV would like comedy to occasionally fill that slot. He envisages a sitcom occupying the first half hour followed by a panel show, but there's nothing in development at the moment and Fincham is clearly signalling that there are opportunities at ITV for programme makers offering comedy.

Although Fincham has been happy to commission a number of revivals including a revamped 'Surprise, Surprise', he's very wary of copying formats that have succeeded on other channels: "there's no quicker way to die a grisly death than to look at someone else's show and say, 'let's do a version of that'".

He's immensely proud of the effort to revitalise ITV's factual programming and acknowledges that this crusade was given a big boost by '56 Up' which completed its latest seven year orbit in 2012. Fincham reminds the Festival audience that ITV nearly gave up on this project fourteen years ago when it allowed the '42 Up' instalment to be shown on the BBC. This could never happen on his watch: "I wouldn't let that happen in a month of Sundays".

In contrast to this ballsy exhibition of his authority, Fincham is sanguine about the controversial decision to allow payday loan company Wonga to sponsor 'Red Or Black?' on Saturday nights, "I don't think it's for me to sit here and opine about the companies that sponsor our programming".

The idea that 'The X Factor' might be tiring is met with short shrift by Fincham. He's not remotely alarmed that the opening show of its 2012 run had lower ratings than the equivalent programme the previous year. "It's not a 100 metre race, it's a 10,000 metre race... don't think Usain Bolt, think Mo Farah," Fincham insisted, clearly believing that his channel's flagship entertainment programme should be judged for the audiences it achieves throughout its run.

Fincham promises that 2013 is going to a better year for ITV and a montage of clips from its coming programmes certainly suggested that we can expect to see a lot of quality drama on the station. But the question remains: who wants to provide comedy for ITV?

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