Saturday 16 November 2019

A man who can hold a grudge, and an audience

TV3's director of programmes has the Midas touch when it comes to ratings, writes Niamh Horan

Ben Frow
Ben Frow
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

BEN Frow is a man of contradictions. He has carved a stellar career out of pushing social boundaries and treading on people's sensibilities. From sex on the reality TV show Tallafornia to televising women having their nether regions bejewelled on Celebrity Salon -- viewers cannot afford to be thin-skinned if they want to fully appreciate Frow's offerings.

He has managed to rise to the top of the toughest game in showbusiness, one where you need an armour of Teflon just to make it through a working day.

And yet outside of that, he could possibly be the most sensitive man in television.

Cross him at your peril.

"I'm a terrible man to hold a grudge," he says with a nonchalant shrug over dinner at Peploe's restaurant in Dublin.

I should know. We haven't spoken in two years.

Following an interview at a TV3 press launch where I took an angle on a story he didn't quite appreciate, the cold winds which blew in from Ballymount would have turned the Queen of Narnia to ice.

It's our first meeting to get things back on track. It also happens to be in the days leading up to the TV3 press launch.

Love him or loathe him, TV3's group programme director has changed the landscape of Irish television beyond recognition. Where once RTE ruled the roost, topping the ratings nightly, no matter what they churned out, now they have to fight tooth and nail for every last viewer.


Because of Ben Frow.

The man who unapologetically declares: "I'd sell my soul for a rating."

From the X-Factor to Xposé, and from Tonight With Vincent Browne to Celebrity Come Dine With Me, Frow has been lauded by critics for managing to spin the schedule into gold in the five years since he has been in charge. He has even mastered the art of breakfast and daytime television, an area which its Montrose counterparts have yet to conquer.

And as if that wasn't enough, under his reign, the percentage of the schedule made up of home-produced programming has increased from 26.7 per cent in 2008 to just under 40 per cent in 2012.

So what can viewers expect over the coming months from his Midas touch?

The recession brings with it a hankering for the good old days and Frow has bought in just the ticket.

Dallas -- complete with TV's most-loved rogue, JR Ewing, now 80 -- promises to be a highlight of the autumn schedule.

He details the intricacies of the plot by heart, enthusiastically acting out some of the better lines in a Texan drawl, jumping from the character of JR to Sue Ellen with ease.

You can see he's a character himself. As entertaining as any of his programmes -- as quickly as he can freeze someone out, he can reel them back in with his humour.

You get a glimpse of his office diva mentality when he ponders a small operation he's considering undergoing on his knee.

"I'm on the ground floor, I can come in a wheelchair," he muses.

"Oh God no, please don't," the PR woman sitting beside him gasps. He must already be quite a handful.

A tough task master, he prides himself on having never taken a sick day.

"I don't care if everyone else gets infected," he playfully announces. "No matter how sick I make everybody else, I won't take a day off.

"I really hate it when people text me to say 'I'm not feeling well', I'm thinking 'me arse'. I just don't believe it."

When he does take his annual vacation, he does so in his holiday home in Cork. An investment he rues.

"I've gone off it now. It's too far to go and it rains all the f**king time.

"Somebody mentioned to me the other day, 'oh, sunny south east', and I'm like 'no one said that to me. If I'd have known there was a bloody sunny south-east, I would have bought there. Instead of the rainy friggin' west coast. I'm beyond over it," he concludes.

"I really believe we need to support holidaying in Ireland but we really need to start building some bus shelters for a start. It's just the basics. We know it's going to rain. It's Ireland. How come there's no bus shelters?" he asks.

If television becomes too dull, there's always politics.

Elsewhere in the schedule the Tallafornia crowd go to Santa Ponza, as Frow puts it simply: "It's fireworks from day three."

But perhaps the most noteworthy show on the cards has to be this season's offering of Celebrity Come Dine With Me. Frow describes the former Miss World Rosanna Davison's group as "shocking".

"Disgusting. It's disgusting. We're actually going to play it really late. An hour later. Rosanna ... " He shakes his head, "I'm shocked at an ex Miss World.

"It's all tits and bum. It's so rude. It's so dirty. They play charades at one point and it's like," he pulls a horrified face, before listing off a classic moment where the beauty queen gets her father on the phone to sing Lady In Red to the Apprentice star Geraldine O' Callaghan. "It's really good," he chuckles.

On the serious side of the schedule, a piece on the night Ireland went bust --with a minute-by-minute countdown -- promises to have the nation glued to their TVs.

In his previous existence with Britain's Channel 4 and Channel 5, he was responsible for Jamie's Kitchen, How Clean Is Your House? and Nigella Lawson's successful cookery shows. And following his success in Ireland, the big guns are keen to woo him back.

"I will leave TV3 when I have done what I need to do or when the right thing comes along," he says.

Is he irreplaceable?

He shows a surprising humility, recoiling at the thought.

"I left Channel 4. It didn't fall apart. Why should it? If you're clever, you build on what's there. Things are cyclical, times change, channels change. In five years' time it will be very different again. There may be some of my legacy left, there may not be. It's very important you allow room for young people and new ideas. I'm not the one coming up with all the great ideas. It's the young people.

"I certainly won't be at the station forever, I can tell you that right now. Not that they'd have me, quite frankly.

"But it certainly would not fall apart without me."

For a man who consistently pushes the boundaries and tests people's limits, is there a line he would never cross?

He ponders for a moment and then says: "We were going to do a documentary on Gerry Ryan. But I didn't want to do it. It would rate. But there are lines I won't cross. I'm all for pushing boundaries and making a noise. But I have to be able to live with myself."

Was it an investigation into how he died?

"Yes, along those lines. It was something I came up with in a discussion with a group of people. And then I said I'm not sure I'm comfortable with it."

Does he not feel that it is something that needs to be looked at?

"No... Not by me," he retorts. "If somebody else wants to do it, that's fine. But it's a line I'm not prepared to cross."

One wonders if he sought advice from his friend Adele King aka Twink, a close pal of Gerry Ryan's, with whom he has spent a "more than a few long evenings" sharing gossip and stories in her home.

"She's one of my favourite people. She's as mad as a box of frogs in the sense that she's as unpredictable as she is entertaining. I wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of her. But then again, you wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of me," he adds pointedly.

Not looking at anyone in particular.

"The most talented people in the world are not the easiest people to work with and I don't care as long as they deliver."

I agree.

And that he has done by the bucketload.

Sunday Independent

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