ITV, like many of us, must be desperate at this stage to escape to the sunny, breezy joys of the Mediterranean, lounge about poolside care-free and just forget about the relentlessness of miseries closer to home.
The good news for the people running the British broadcaster is that summer unreality juggernaut Love Island starts up again next Monday. The bad news is that this month’s ITV drama – whether the This Morning brand can survive – hasn’t ended with the exit of Phillip Schofield.
On Sunday, ITV said it was “sorry” to read a post by former This Morning contributor, Dr Ranj Singh, who claimed he had been “managed out” of the show after he tried to raise concerns about a “toxic” behind-the-scenes culture beset by issues that went “far beyond” Schofield.
It can’t have been surprised by Singh’s statement, however, as the show’s erstwhile medical adviser had previously made an internal complaint, prompting it to commission an external review. That it was able to say that this review “found no evidence of bullying or discrimination” has done little to soften the cyclone of media attention now migrating from Schofield to ITV executives.
It’s a sign that things are not going splendidly well if you’re being doorstepped by Sky News – a fate that befell ITV director of television Kevin Lygo at the weekend, when he answered “no” to the question of whether ITV had made mistakes in its 2020 investigation into Schofield’s rumoured affair with a much younger, much more junior colleague on the show.
As evidenced by the sheer volume of statements ITV has released both before and after Schofield’s belated admission on Friday to the “unwise, but not illegal” relationship, the saga has put ITV on the defensive and now even threatens to take down its bedrock of daytime.
This Morning is not under review and there are no plans to axe it, the broadcaster insisted ahead of Monday’s show, hosted by regular Friday presenters Dermot O’Leary and Alison Hammond, who segued seamlessly from breezy chat about Victoria sponges and steak sandwiches to the more serious-faced acknowledgment ahead of its news review that the show itself was the news.
“Now we all know we happen to be in the news at the moment and, of course, we appreciate that, but just from both of us and the whole team here – the crew, the guys downstairs – we love making this show for all of you,” said O’Leary.
“Yeah, we really do, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do. We’re going to continue to do that,” said Hammond.
Item contributor Gyles Brandreth then declared This Morning “a happy place to work”, using the word “happy” another five times and inviting co-contributor Sonia Sodha to confirm that she, too, was happy.
With so much happiness abounding, it would be easy to think that ITV has no problems, either on or off the This Morning sofas.
Indeed, earlier this month, the broadcaster’s chief executive, Carolyn McCall, struck an upbeat tone worthy of daytime as she announced a 10 per cent drop in first quarter advertising revenue, saying this was “as expected and better than the wider TV advertising market”. The forecast for the second quarter? A further 12 per cent decline, both “expected” and a consequence of the challenging macroeconomic environment.
If This Morning outlives its current woes, it should still find another brand to step in and replace car dealer Arnold Clark, which will end its sponsorship this autumn “as planned”. But to spark an actual recovery in revenues, the pressure falls squarely on Love Island, made by production arm ITV Studios.
The much-streamed, Majorca-set festival of flirtation and fighting – shown in Ireland, like This Morning, by Virgin Media Television – is adored by advertisers who cherish its young, engaged audience. In a sea of flops, Love Island is a proven, repeatable hit too valuable to ignore.
But it is not without its reputational dangers either. The last summer run, for instance, was criticised by domestic violence charities Women’s Aid and Refuge over its showcasing of “misogynistic and controlling behaviour”, amid concerns that producers were normalising coercive control for young viewers and not intervening to stop it.
The welfare of Love Island participants has been a highly sensitive and fraught matter for ITV ever since the suicides of former contestants Sophie Gradon and Mike Thalassitis in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
Alongside the death of Steve Dymond in 2019 just a week after he was humiliated on The Jeremy Kyle Show – which ITV subsequently axed – the loss of Gradon and Thalassitis inevitably raised questions about the television industry’s duty of care record.
ITV has since ramped up its protocols, asking Love Island participants to deactivate their social media platforms while they are on the show in a bid to mitigate abuse. It has also given Islanders “guidance and training around mutually respectful behaviour in relationships”.
The bleak truth is that reality television has always thrived on controversy, even controversies that leave nothing except a bad taste in the mouth. Mutually respectful behaviour? Not so much. But there is a line past which ITV would be ill-advised to cross, especially now. It needs this series of Love Island to be a distraction from This Morning, not a vehicle for furthering the narrative that the company is beset by toxicity.
Ideally, the show will feature enough conflict to bring in sparkling ratings over its two-month run without generating the sort of scandal that sinks it, jeopardising advertising revenues that are increasingly hard to come by.
Back on No Love Lost Island, hostility between Schofield and former colleague Eamonn Holmes has provided fresh fodder for tabloids keen to keep the This Morning story on their front and home pages, with the imminent return of Schofield’s co-presenter Holly Willoughby also helping to sustain a blizzard of often gleeful-sounding updates.
This is scheduled for next Monday, the same day Love Island begins. By then, she might well wish she could head south to the relative calm of a Majorcan villa. Who would blame her? No, don’t answer that.