Profile: Peter Bazalgette

The man who has “done more to debase television than anyone else”

Given that she’s a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, Chantelle Houghton isn’t half a looker. But the non-celebrity winner of Celebrity Big Brother is nonetheless a manufactured creature, says The Guardian: proof that “everyone one day will be famous for 15 minutes”.

It was quite a victory for the girl from Essex, but it also marked a personal triumph for Peter Bazalgette, chairman of the show’s producer, Endemol UK, offering as it did “a new peak for reality TV”.

A fishwife at heart

Bazalgette didn’t invent Big Brother; the idea came from Dutch producer and Endemol founder John de Mol. But Baz, as he’s universally known, is the man who popularised the ‘BB’ phenomenon, which now runs in 30 countries.

Indeed, says The Independent, there’s a strong argument to be made that Bazalgette is “the most influential man in British television”: not just because of his “commercial heft”, but because of the effect he’s had “on the whole shape of television”. Before pioneering the reality genre, he was chief instigator of the 1990s revolution in “lifestyle” TV, originating shows such as Ready Steady Cook and Ground Force.

“I’m a fishwife at heart,” says Bazalgette. “I’m like Les Dawson in a hairnet gossiping over the fence.” But to many, he’s beyond the pale. The Daily Mail named him one of the “Ten Worst Britons” for originating such monstrosities as The Farm (in which Rebecca Loos got intimate with a pig). Bazalgette, says Victor Lewis-Smith of the Evening Standard, has “done more to debase television over the past decade than anyone else”.

Esther’s boy

A favourite ploy of Bazalgette’s opponents is to make the link between the “excrement” he puts out and the career of his Victorian ancestor, Sir Joseph Bazalgette, who built London’s sewage system. But, as you would expect from a former Cambridge Union president, Bazalgette comes out fighting, lambasting what he sees as a “miserable, puritan streak” in society.

His views might have something to do with his own upbringing, says The Observer: for the first 12 years of his life, his parents didn’t have a television and Bazalgette recalls his father “had an irrational fear of a communist coup”, stockpiling tins just in case.

A “bolshie” teenager at Dulwich College, he gained a third from Fitzwilliam College Cambridge before joining the BBC graduate news training scheme. His big break came when he was picked by Esther Rantzen to be one of her “boys” on That’s Life in 1977. “Everything I did [subsequently] was learned at Esther’s knee,” says Bazalgette. He went on to form his own production company, Bazal, eventually selling out to Endemol in 1990.

Tech visionary

Bazalgette, now 52, still thinks of himself as an enfant terrible, says The Sunday Telegraph. He says he likes “to be hated”, calls people “Darling”, sips coffee from a mug labelled “Gorgeous” and wears “blaringly loud socks”.

But there is steel and vision in him too, says The Independent. He is one of the few in TV who understands the “impact new technologies will have on the medium”. He describes the timing of Big Brother as serendipitous, coinciding as it did with the onslaught of mobile phones and the internet. Think of it as a convergence, he says, comparable to that of “Elvis and the electric guitar”.

The arrival of 3G, digital TV and podcasting will stir things up further. The “cultural elite” fulminate against programmes such as Big Brother, he concludes, because “they’re frightened of losing control of the airwaves”, which they probably will.

He’s made the most of Big Brother – now he’s hedging his bets

In a piece in The Guardian this week, Bazalgette couldn’t resist crowing about the impact that his reality TV show, Celebrity Big Brother, had had on the rest of the media over the previous three weeks.

“On BBC 1’s 10 O’Clock News, [George] Galloway’s eviction was third in the running order,” he noted. “Conclusion number one: is reality TV dying? Is it hell!”

It’s easy to see why Bazalgette is so exercised, says the Daily Mail. When Endemol underwent a partial initial public offering (IPO) on the Amsterdam Stock Exchange in November, it proved “a ratings flop”.

Its shares finally sold for a price right at the bottom of the projected range (around €9), valuing the company at about £750m, despite the fact that Spanish telecoms firm Telefonica had paid a whopping £3.8bn for it only five years earlier. At the time of the IPO, investors were worried that the Big Brother flagship, which accounts for roughly 19% of revenues, was “running out of steam”. It seems they were wrong.

If the reality genre is here to stay, as Bazalgette maintains, it may well be that Endemol will now prove a tempting target for a private-equity buyer, particularly since it’s priced at barely seven times 2006 forecast earnings and Telefonica is rumoured to be keen to bail out of the holdings it has left, notes the Mail.

Meanwhile, for all his bravado about the future of the genre, Bazalgette, who was paid £4.6m last year, has taken steps to hedge his bets, says The Sunday Telegraph. He’s recruited satirist Charlie Brooker for his new comedy division and is also ramping up Endemol’s drama department.

Merryn

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