“I was born at an early age”

Peter Bazalgette, winner of the 2009 C21Media/FRAPA Format Awards Gold Medal, describes himself as a media consultant and digital investor. Other people — the UK press, for example — describe the former Endemol board member as “the most influential man in British television”. Joanna Stephens talks to ‘Baz’, the Cambridge law graduate who invented lifestyle, pioneered reality and whose passion for pop TV rewrote the rules of entertainment.

You started work as a researcher on Esther Rantzen’s That’s Life in the late Seventies. Thirty years on, you have been awarded a fellowship of the Royal Television Society and ranked in the Daily Telegraph’s top-30 most influential people in British culture. How did that happen?

I was born at an early age…

But that’s quite a journey. Where did it start?

After I left college, I found the idea of law a bit dry, so I got myself on to a BBC graduate news-training scheme. I ended up with a job on [magazine consumer show] That’s Life, which used to get around 16 million viewers in its heyday. That’s Life was essentially a format. It had a lot of entertainment, as well as facts and figures. Looking back, it was a training course in how to blend factual and entertainment. Then, in the early Eighties, I was asked to format the card game bridge for TV. They’d just done something similar with chess, which had worked surprisingly well. So I did two or three series for BBC2. It was a bizarre and esoteric thing, but it did all right and got between 1-2 million viewers. I managed to get some lively international players on the show — I remember particularly a husband-and-wife team. When a hand went wrong, I used to get them to argue a bit, which could be quite amusing. By this time I was also running a corporate video company. Then, in 1982, I was asked to take over Food And Drink on BBC2, which was another opportunity to play around with a factual format. In fact, I played around with it rather badly in the beginning. It took more than a year to get it right — and you wouldn’t, incidentally, be given that luxury today.

The playing around clearly worked. Doesn’t Food And Drink hold the record for being the UK’s longest running food show?

Yes, it ran for 20 years and we did a useful 20-25 shows a year. Food And Drink also gave me a useful education in formats. It was a magazine show, so we had to invent mini-formats every week, like cooking for the army or creating a menu for a posh restaurant. It was a great grounding.

Then, in 1994, I was asked by the BBC to create an entertainment show for afternoons. I came up with Ready Steady Cook, which has now been on air for nearly 17 years and has been sold to around 30 countries.

Ready Steady Cook taught me by accident an important thing about formats, which is that a good idea can be repeated every day for the rest of one’s life. With just that one format, we turned over about £100m in 16 years — in fact, probably closer to £150m, if you take into account things like book sales and licensing productions around the world.

Another thing I learned from Ready Steady Cook is that one good idea can be recorded five times a day — that was also quite an eye-opener to me. When Ready Steady Cook took off internationally, I had to start hiring format salesmen. I remember one of our first sales was to the Food Channel in New York, where it became a bit of a cult hit. It was even featured in an episode of Friends.

Would you say Ready Steady Cook was a seminal show for you?

Yes, it taught me all about formats. And it was also a significant show in itself, because it was probably the first cookery programme to break with the traditional, didactic, Delia-like approach. With Ready Steady Cook, you still got great recipes cooked with great skill, but you also got a dash of plot and entertainment and format.

And of course, Ready Steady Cook was significant because it led to Changing Rooms and Ground Force, both of which did very well and sold around the world. You could say that Changing Rooms was also seminal, because it was the first show that gave you a real insight into people’s lives. It also added a huge plot device in the form of what it would be like if somebody did up a room in your house for you. Which is a ghastly thought for most house-proud English people… It’s been said — by others, not me — that Changing Rooms led on to the Wife Swaps and the Supernannies and all those formatted documentaries that put members of pubic into real situations, and reveal elements of personality and private life.

Changing Rooms got audiences of 6-7 million on BBC2, which was unheard of. It then transferred to BBC1, where it pulled in audiences of 10 million at its peak. It was then done to death, of course. It was plundered by the BBC, which promptly invented about 10 other shows that looked exactly the same.

Then along came Endemol and Big Brother. How did that come about?

I’d sold my production company Bazal to the Guardian Media Group. By 1998, we were fed up with being owned by a newspaper group, so we found Endemol, which wanted to buy us. As a result, in 1999, when Endemol invented Big Brother and it went on air in Holland, we had the UK rights to it. So that was why I was the person who bought Big Brother to the UK.

What did you think when you first saw Big Brother? Did you realise you were looking at TV gold?

I realised when I first saw the TV show — that would have been in late 1998 — that it was compelling and extraordinary. But when I first saw the idea on paper I wasn’t sure that I could get it away in the UK — except for on Sky One, as I once famously said! In fact, both Channel 4 and Channel 5 wanted it, but in the end Channel 4 offered more money.

Why do you think Big Brother was such a phenomenon?

There are various things about Big Brother. The first is that it launched in the dot.com era and it seemed to be ultimate philosopher’s stone because it combined television with the internet and the phone. The X Factor does all that today, but Big Brother was first to blend all three features in one package.

It also enabled fans to see rushes for the first time. People could watch Big Brother live for up to 20 hours a day if they wanted. In that respect, it was like a media education for fans. In traditional reality shows, the viewer only gets to see perhaps one tenth of the material that has been shot, which is then edited into a narrative. But when Big Brother’s raw material was put on view, every fan could edit it in their own way to create their own story.

And then there was the question of watching people 24 hours a day, which outraged some viewers’ idea of decency and privacy — especially older people. The younger Facebook generation doesn’t mind sharing and doesn’t mind nudity, although it doesn’t like violence.

It’s true that Big Brother created a fair amount of controversy…

It created incidents around the world. In Germany, the regulator tried to stop it on the grounds that it was an infringement of people’s privacy — until it was pointed out that all the people in the Big Brother house were consensual in having their privacy infringed. In Mexico, which is run by about 200 big Catholic families, they tried to stop it before it went on air. In France, all the broadcasters got together and decided that nobody would commission it — until M6 broke ranks. In Bahrain, a demonstration of the mullahs stopped it being broadcast. And in the UK, all the psychologists queued up to be on television to say that Big Brother would lead to dreadful consequences for the contestants. Which was ironic, because the psychologists condemning the contestants for wanting to be on television also wanted to be on television themselves…

Which format are you the most proud of?

I particularly enjoyed doing [architectural popularity contest] Restoration for BBC2. Although I didn’t actually create the show, Endemol produced it in my time. By what’s my favourite of all the shows? In the end, I suppose you go for your own babies, and so I’d have to say Ready Steady Cook or Changing Rooms. Those are the two shows that I really felt a part of.

What was your reaction to being awarded the 2009 IFA Gold Medal?

Well, obviously being given a lifetime achievement award is a huge honour. But you also have to pinch yourself and ask whether this means you’re now dead… But seriously, it was a charming occasion with a lot of very distinguished format creators and industry people. I was very flattered and very honoured.

So what’s next for formats?

We haven’t had a game-changing format since Deal Or No Deal and The X Factor in the early Noughties. But television tends to go forward in leaps. Then it gathers its breath and calms down before it makes another big leap. I can’t predict when the next leap forward will be, or where it will take us, but I do know there will be one. And I know that formats will be at the centre of it.