Sex, scandal and scores to settle — inside the turmoil at the top of ITV

 (Evening Standard composite)
(Evening Standard composite)

Is the Phillip Schofield confession a watershed moment for ITV?

The rumble of stories around Schofield’s ‘unwise but not illegal’ affair with a junior colleague is entering its second month and shows no sign of dying down. Holly Willoughby choked back tears as she returned to the show yesterday, telling viewers: “I imagine that you might have been feeling a lot like I have: shaken, troubled, let down, worried for the wellbeing of people on all sides of what’s been going on, and full of questions.”

The mood of the team at This Morning’s studio is “muted and terrified,” one insider says. “Everyone thinks heads will roll, it’s just a question of how high up or whether they’ll do what they always do and make those lower down suffer. People are thinking they’ll just cancel the show and therefore put everyone out of work.”

This Morning boss Martin Frizell spent the weekend denying reports that the show had a toxic culture despite claims from presenter Eamonn Holmes and Dr Ranj Singh, This Morning’s former resident doctor. Originally from Glasgow, the 64-year-old producer and editor was accused by Singh of edging him out after he raised concerns about Frizell’s behaviour and the bullying environment at This Morning.

Martin Frizell and his wife, ex-presenter Fiona Phillips (Photo by Dave J Hogan/Dave Hogan/Getty Images)
Martin Frizell and his wife, ex-presenter Fiona Phillips (Photo by Dave J Hogan/Dave Hogan/Getty Images)

One former colleague accused Frizell of “only valuing the stars,” “verbally abusing people, slamming papers on desk and shouting in the office.” Another told the Standard that “working there was like being back at school and being yelled at daily with sexist comments flying. Live TV is pressured, the stars were everything and complaining would have been detrimental to my career.”

The Evening Standard tried to contact Frizell but received no response. In an interview with Sky News on Saturday, he said: “There are some scores being settled. I am working with a fantastic team of mainly women, many mums, a lot of them concerned for their jobs, although we’ve told them not to be. But this is the 23rd day now of being on the front page and it’s tiring.”

Working there [on This Morning] was like being back at school and being yelled at daily with sexist comments flying

ITV issued a statement saying “it’s a fast-paced environment turning around a daily show that covers live and ever-changing issues. We have robust mechanisms in place for complaints to be raised and those that are, are appropriately investigated.

“What we’re hearing from the This Morning team is that they don’t recognise the picture that some are painting about the show.”

The channel has form when it comes to close-to-the-bone daytime formats. In 2019 the Jeremy Kyle Show was cancelled after Steve Dymond, a guest on the show in May that year, failed a lie detector test he took to prove to his partner, Jane, that he had not been unfaithful. Dymond killed himself a few days after filming. At the time, the broadcasting union Bectu accused the show of prioritising ratings and asked ITV to “accept greater responsibility for the mental wellbeing of workers and participants.”

Phillip Schofield during his BBC interview (BBC)
Phillip Schofield during his BBC interview (BBC)

Dame Carolyn was called before Parliament then too and ITV published a Duty of Care charter in 2019 to “manage and support the mental health and well-being of programme participants before, during and after production.”

Piers Morgan walked out on Good Morning Britain in March 2021 in an on-screen row about his views of Meghan Markle, and while the show’s ratings dipped immediately afterwards, the show is currently pulling in around a million viewers — the same as at the end of 2020.

This constant barrage of bad news has not hurt This Morning’s ratings, however, which have been climbing since the scandal broke. Last week’s Monday show pulling in just under a million viewers compared to the 644,000 people watching in Schofield’s final week. And ITV’s advertising paymasters are surprisingly sanguine.

“It’s really just daytime fodder, it’s not a flagship show,” one creative agency boss said. “We haven’t had a single client ask us for our view on it. If they decide to dump the format, they will replace it with something similar which will attract a similar audience. It won’t really hit their revenues.

“The same thing happened with Jeremy Kyle and that had no effect. Even Piers Morgan leaving Good Morning Britain didn’t really hit ratings. The only show that would really hurt is if they lost Love Island, because it’s got viewers under 35 years old.”

Indeed, with the exception of the pandemic when advertisers stopped spending, ITV has seen its revenue increase every year over the past 10 years. “The UK broadcasting ecosystem is unlike any other in the world,” explains Tom Harrington, TV analyst at Enders Analysis. “Most countries have a number of big commercial broadcasters. In the UK there’s just ITV and it is still huge. The number of people watching TV is declining but still there’s nowhere else for advertisers to go to reach millions of people. I’m not saying it’s immune to scandal but there are very few people whose departure would hurt ITV overall – probably only Kevin Lygo, the programming boss.”

Alison Hammond bursts into tears about Phillip Schofield's bombshell interview on This Morning (ITV)
Alison Hammond bursts into tears about Phillip Schofield's bombshell interview on This Morning (ITV)

It’s Lygo who’s overseen ITV’s two biggest moves over the past 10 years — buying up production companies and launching the broadcaster’s online streaming service, ITVX. In a bid to move away from depending entirely on advertising revenue, the company acquired companies like World Productions, Big Talk and Mammoth Pictures so that production companies that are part of ITV Studios now make many of the BBC’s biggest hits — Bodyguard, Line of Duty and Vigil as well as University Challenge, Noughts and Crosses and The Serpent. ITV Studios companies also make Channel 4’s Countdown, The Windsors and 24 Hours in Police Custody, Queer Eye on Netflix, Fifteen-Love on Amazon, Physical on Apple TV+, the upcoming Rivals on Disney + and a swathe of programmes for broadcasters around the world, including The Voice and Love Island franchises. This Morning’s 90 minutes a day is a very small business in comparison.

ITVX, meanwhile, launched in December to deal with a very specific problem the channel has — the average age of the ITV viewer is 60 and, as Lygo said at the streaming service launch, “we have a large, loyal audience who watch a lot of ITV because they’re soap addicts but it’s hard to attract new people to soap and we have to work very, very hard now to get people to come to us at 9 o’clock to watch our dramas and our factual programmes.”

Jenny Biggam, founder of People’s Postcode Lottery media agency the7stars, points out that 40 per cent of ITV’s audience watches between 9am and 5pm and “there is still a decent audience going to soaps and quiz shows. Advertisers would miss that content if it wasn’t there. ITV is fighting back against the streamers. They’re mixing viewing figures with things like supermarket data so you can target homes with cats for cat food ads and the fact that they own the production business means they commercially broker deals like the eBay and Love Island tie-in. It’s a little bit late but they’re there and they’re doing it.”

And so, for all of the betrayal This Morning viewers may feel, the hurt to the young employee caught up in the Schofield scandal and the month of tabloid coverage this is a human tragedy but not a watershed moment for a channel used to riding out storms.

Television Centre / ITV Studios (Alamy Stock Photo)
Television Centre / ITV Studios (Alamy Stock Photo)

What hangs in the balance is the careers of those still involved in the show — “Holly’s future depends on whether audiences believe she knew nothing,” said the former employee. Holmes has been public in his assertions that the details of Schofield’s affair were known by “four high members of ITV management” and at least one former staff member says it was an open secret. ITV has Jane Mulcahy KC carrying out an external review as to who knew what and how the channel handled the affair.

Holly’s future depends on whether audiences believe she knew nothing

In a letter to broadcasting regulator Ofcom, Dame Carolyn McCall says ITV investigated the affair when “rumours of a relationship between Phillip Schofield and an employee of ITV first began to circulate in late 2019/early 2020 ITV investigated. Both parties were questioned then and both categorically and repeatedly denied the rumours, as did Phillip’s then agency YMU.”

In a statement to the Daily Mail, Schofield admitted: “I am painfully conscious that I have lied to my employers at ITV, to my colleagues and friends, to my agents, to the media and therefore the public” and went on to admit, during an interview with the BBC, that he also lied to, and kept the affair hidden from Holly.