The global entertainment maker’s president on producing drama such as Ripper Street and creating an app for the Rolling Stones
Down the road from the BBC’s Television Centre, evacuated to make way for the bulldozers, is another small screen “fun factory”. Whether Big Brother producer Endemol will ever prompt the wave of nostalgic affection generated by its neighbouring west London site, closed after 53 years, remains to be seen.
Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself. Tim Hincks, president of Endemol Group and for many years Big Brother’s defender-in-chief, says there is plenty of life left in the reality show which returns to Channel 5 later this month.
“It’s been around 13 years, which is longer than the Beatles. Can it be around longer than the Rolling Stones [who celebrated their 50th anniversary this year]? We should be aiming for that,” declares Hincks, showing no shortage of ambition (or imagination). “If it launched today it would still be a success because it is a very modern format in the way it interacts with social media and technology. It has always been ahead of the curve.” It still is, he adds. “You can watch Brazilian Big Brother in 3D.”
Anyone with a passing acquaintance with the overnight ratings, though, might take issue with Hincks’s claim that Big Brother in the UK is “resurgent”. Last year’s series averaged nearly 2 million viewers on Richard Desmond’s Channel 5, a third of the 5 million-plus who tuned into Channel 4 at its height in series three (the one with Jade Goody) in 2002.
And yet its ratings were respectable enough, helped by a double helping of the celebrity version, to deliver C5’s first year-on-year increase in audience share since 2004 (albeit a marginal one, from 4.4% to 4.5%). It was one of only two channels to gain share, along with BBC1, which did so on the back of the Olympics. “It punches above its weight and Richard Desmond has done exactly what he said he would do, which was get behind it and make it feel like an event. It’s a great partnership,” says Hincks.
But it was one with a difficult beginning. So frustrated did Desmond become in his negotiations with Endemol after the show was axed by C4 that he reputedly once smashed a glass at Hincks’s feet and stopped talking to its then chief executive, Ynon Kreiz.
Like Nasty Nick, that is all in the past now and the pair are said to be on good terms. So much so that Desmond, an enthusiastic drummer, played with Hincks’s band No Expectations at the Mipcom TV market in Cannes two years ago, with ITV director of television Peter Fincham on keyboards.
President of Netherlands-based Endemol since last year, Hincks is responsible for the creation and exploitation of the company’s programmes worldwide. It spans 90 subsidiaries in 31 countries, making 350 series a year. He remains chairman of Endemol UK, which he joined in 1999, and has overseen a drive into drama and scripted programming following the purchase of UK production company Tiger Aspect four years ago.
Endemol’s latest project is Low Winter Sun, a remake of the 2006 C4 police corruption drama starring one of its original cast, Mark Strong, and Lennie James. Endemol is jointly producing with US cable network AMC, home of Mad Men, and the UK rights have been bought by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox.
Other Tiger Aspect productions include the Alison Steadman drama Love and Marriage, which begins on ITV on Wednesday and BBC1’s Ripper Street, recommissioned for a second series, as well as C4’s teen drama My Mad Fat Diary and ITV’s enduring sitcom Benidorm.
With dramas as diverse as AMC’s western Hell on Wheels and Charlie Brooker’s satirical Black Mirror for C4, scripted shows now account for around 25% of Endemol’s business. “Big Brother remains utterly central to what we do and will always be close to my heart but we had to keep moving and we had to diversify,” says Hincks.
But it is the global entertainment juggernauts for which Endemol remains best-known — Big Brother, Fear Factor, Deal or No Deal, Million Pound Drop Live, a conveyor belt of reality and gameshow hits that Hincks, in his new role, is monitoring and encouraging. Every couple of months he chairs Endemol’s “global creative team” or GCT (“it sounds like a drug cartel,” he suggests), encompassing production heads and creatives from around the world.
He remembers the first time the format for Million Pound Drop Live (a big hit for C4, but since faded in the UK) was demonstrated to him by its creator, Endemol executive David Flynn. “It used one penny coins on a cardboard box,” says Hincks. “Cut to nine months later and it’s in 30 countries. A year and a half later it’s in 51 countries. That’s how quickly it can travel.”
Endemol’s latest format is Your Face Sounds Familiar in which celebrity contestants impersonate famous singers. It’s not just the face that sounds familiar — Stars in Their Eyes, anyone? — but it is expected to air in the UK on ITV.
Satisfying broadcasters’ appetite for a feelgood, warm-hearted show in difficult economic times, it originated in one of Europe’s most recession-torn countries, Spain (where it lasts three and a half hours).
Hincks has also been diversifying into digital, launching a Fear Factor channel on YouTube, part of a strategy of building communities around individual shows and then cross-promoting to other Endemol properties such as Mr Bean.
Along with second screen spin-offs from shows such as Million Pound Drop (Hincks says 12% of viewers played along at home, compared to the usual hit rate of 2 or 3%), Endemol also joined forces with the Rolling Stones to create the band’s first official app. It is part of a drive by Hincks to look beyond the traditional TV model which has been “remarkably resilient but is not going to be around forever”.
He describes his meeting with Mick Jagger as “one of the single most exciting things I have done in my life. It’s sort of annoying when you do something that exciting; you have to spend the entire meeting pretending it isn’t exciting at all.”
“Ten years ago that meeting would have been about making a concert film or a documentary for a broadcaster,” he adds. “Now it’s about a digita
l partnership and a creative opportunity, curating their archive and a retail proposition where you can buy their music. Even five years ago, that would have involved setting up a shop.”
With annual revenues understood to have been £1.1bn in 2012, Hincks says privately-owned Endemol is “in very good shape” financially, a year after its backers reached an agreement with its lenders to restructure a £2.3bn debt.
The restructure, which would see its lenders take a significant shareholding and seats on the board, has still not happened, however, with the company’s ownership split between Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset, Goldman Sachs’ Capital Partners and Endemol founder John De Mol’s investment vehicle Cyrte. It was back on the acquisition trail in April, buying a controlling stake in leading Israeli producer Kuperman, owned by former Endemol boss, Ynon Kreiz.
Hincks’s career could have been very different. Current affairs was his first love and he did stints on Newsnight before landing up on BBC2’s Food and Drink with Peter Bazalgette, now chairman of the Arts Council, to whom he was No 2 for a long time at Endemol.
“I had two interviews, one with That’s Life, which went very badly, and one with Baz,” recalls Hincks. “I think I forgot to be self-conscious with Baz because I was so distracted by his red corduroy trousers.”
Hincks recalls the description, by one senior TV executive, of working life at Endemol as “utter anarchy”. He begs to differ: “It’s managed anarchy.”
Another Endemol show, C4’s 10 O’Clock Live, now midway through its third run . The all-star satirical show, with David Mitchell, Charlie Brooker, Jimmy Carr and Lauren Lavernehad a difficult first series but C4 stuck with it.
“From the very first conversation I had with [C4 chief creative officer] Jay Hunt we both agreed it was going to be very, very tough,” says Hincks. He reckons it has now “found its feet and its heart” but admits the initial response was hard to take.
“All TV producers are pathetically vain and shallow. When Twitter goes wild and loves our show we think it needs to be encouraged and should be taught in schools. When they react badly it’s just a load of people with nothing better to do,” he says.
“Twitter’s a wonderful thing but when you launch a new show it may not be the first place you should go, anymore than you should walk into a pub when they are watching your show and say, ‘hey, sorry to interrupt, what do you think of it?’ They might tell you the truth.”