Well it had to happen sooner or later – Jonathan Ross departs the BBC. Whether he was pushed or resigned we may never know. However what was clear was that he would never again get the kind of pay packet from Auntie Beeb again. In the depths of the recession headlines such as ‘Obscene’ £18m pay deal for TV’s Jonathan Ross (The Mail – who else?) made unpleasant reading for the BBC Governors as they munched on their Frosties in the morning.
Poor Jonathan was even getting a kicking from his presenter colleagues at the BBC. Newsreader Fiona Bruce attacked the money he was earning as “a hell of a lot”. To be fair to him, he got lucky – very very lucky – and must have the best agent in town to have bagged that deal. I mean, if I was offered £6m a year would I say “No thanks chaps”? Would I hell – I’d take it with open arms. Plus another frequently neglected fact is that he also managed to get his own production companies, Open Mike and Hot Sauce, to produce many of the shows. Ross was not only in a win win situation – he was in fact in a win win win situation.
I’m not going to talk about Ross’s misgivings and controversies – that’s been done to death in every paper already and is frankly boring. We all know what he did and what he said. However the big question on everyone’s lips is Where does Wossy go now?
Well there aren’t that many channels out there with the money he commanded at the BBC. Sky One has been mentioned a lot in the news as his next destination – but in fact it’s really more of a shop window for Sky Sports and Sky Movies without the big budgets the networks have to play with. ITV’s worrying financial situation certainly means they won’t have the ability to compete on the finances – although they would clearly welcome him back with open arms. Channel 4 and Five also will be unwilling to pay huge sums of money out – although Ross’s risque personality would fit in better at Channel 4 and would probably be uncensored in the main which would help the negotiations. However, network TV is not the same anymore – the glory days of 10 million viewers will be confined to history before long. The BBC, ITV, Channel 4, and Five will be one of up to 50 Freeview channels available in every household before the year is out. And in the homes which take Sky or Virgin the number of rival channels will be in the hundreds. So TV programme budgets will most likely be cut and not increased as the battle for viewers intensifies.
So where does Wossy go? Well, clearly he’s one smart guy – after all he got the biggest salary the BBC has ever paid out – so he won’t be sitting on the sidelines for long. As a presenter he is a hired hand and plays to the call of the channel who hire him. However in July 2008 something rather interesting, albeit low-key, happened. Tim Lovejoy, the architect of Sky Sports legendary Soccer AM show quit to launch Channel Bee – a short-lived website he created in partnership with Spice Girls svengali Simon Fuller’s 19 Entertainment. What Lovejoy realised was as a presenter he had no rights to be employed by Sky Sports, or anyone else for that matter, when his contract came to an end. He would only ever be employed there as a presenter and wanted to own a chunk of his own media. A chance meeting with Simon Fuller after he interviewed David Beckham convinced him the merits of taking ownership of a format and only when you are the brand guardian can you call the shots. Simon Cowell’s production company SyCo own the rights to The X Factor and as a result they control the shots and make the real money. If Lovejoy had owned the rights to the Soccer AM format he could have sold it to numerous territories worldwide as well as being the presenter for as long as he wanted to.
So why should Jonathan Ross go to ITV or Channel 4 only to have the same shackles applied on what he can and can’t say, as well as the difficulty in negotiating a new pay deal? Well I don’t think he will. I think he is smarter than that – as does Simon Cowell for sure. Simon Cowell and Topshop’s Philip Green are launching a global entertainment powerhouse which will be built around moulding popular culture, creating offshoots, and having concert and merchandising deals. The X Factor is just the beginning. If Cowell and Green want to start their new venture with a bang, what better personality would they want on-board as their new star presenter? Ross knows the UK TV industry intimately and brings to the table a guaranteed audience of several million viewers on any show he fronts. If you wanted to create a new global format you need someone with the calibre of Jonathan Ross just like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? turned to Chris Tarrant when they wanted to propel the format into the big time. And yes, Tarrant was a major shareholder in the production company Celador too.
So if Jonathan Ross is smart (he is) and gets the right backer on board (he will) then the £6m a year he earned at the BBC will be dwarfed by his next pay cheque if he manages to own the next programme format either outright, or with the backing of either 19 Entertainment or SyCo. But one thing I’m pretty sure of, that he won’t be a presenter on his next channel simply because he needs the work. Instead it’s more likely he’ll be calling more of the shots himself, plus if he has a financial stake in the format he is more likely to be careful on what he says too when we do see him. So we’re all winners.