If you don’t recognize Nikki Cheetham’s name, the prodcos at which she’s worked as managing director – such as London-based Bazal – should definitely be familiar. ‘I think my personnel number there was 02, and [founder] Peter Bazalgette’s was 01,’ says Cheetham of her beginnings there in 1992. If the company doesn’t ring a bell, that’s because it switched its name to Endemol UK Productions in 2002 to reflect its acquisition by Endemol UK. The company’s most recent name change happened in mid-May – it’s now called Cheetah Television – and Cheetham has retained her role as MD.
When it’s suggested that Cheetham’s surname is eerily similar to the company’s new moniker, she laughs and dismisses it as ‘a happy coincidence.’ Still, others have understandably ribbed her about it too. ‘A lot of my friends in the industry are saying ‘Oh, that’s very clever, Nikki – how did you manage that?” The reason the feline name was chosen, assures Cheetham, is the connotations with speed, beauty and the ability to react quickly.
It takes that last skill to keep up with programming trends, like the doe-eyed wave Cheetham sees sweeping through today’s UK factual business. ‘Almost every single factual broadcaster I talk to is asking for programming that’s more celebratory, more feel-good, and happier than in the past,’ explains Cheetham. ‘I think UK factual programming has been quite grim and serious for the last few years.’ She’s quick to provide an exception called Restoration from her own catalog. The show, which Cheetham originated, allows the public to vote on which historic building in Britain they’d want to see saved. She says the primetime series pulled an average of 2.8 million viewers on BBC2 – the same channel that made Coast, another series she considers a notable feel-good program. After these programs aired successfully, she says, ‘Broadcasters thought, ‘Oh, viewers like sitting down and watching something that’s a bit joyous.”
But Cheetham is out to provide more than just cheer to channel surfers – she wants to pull at heart strings. ‘I think TV needs to be very emotional to work,’ she says. ‘You can fit fewer words into an hour-long doc than you can into the front cover of a broadsheet newspaper. It’s hard to get millions of facts into programming, but what you can do is engage people’s emotions.’
Engaging emotions is what will help Cheetham reach her goal at Cheetah: making ‘shows that will be talked about on the bus.’ She’s got an enviable support system with Sara Ramsden – previously a head of specialist factual at Endemol UK, as well as a C4 factual head and Sky controller – onboard as creative director. There’s also executive producer Alexandra Henderson, a new hire who has a current affairs background and acted as editor for a general election while at the BBC, as well as Annette Clarke, another executive producer who is working on the third series of Restoration with Cheetham.
Cheetham refers back to Restoration to make a point about her vision for Cheetah. ‘That show applies a popular entertainment focus onto a serious subject – architecture. It proves that instead of getting a small, history-type audience, we got the whole country going about these buildings,’ she boasts. She hopes to create the same buzz with Extinct, a new commission from ITV1 that aims to save an endangered animal species. The interactive series is set to air next year, and Cheetham wants it to ‘do for animals what we did for buildings with Restoration.’ She says she’d like Cheetah to tackle typically esoteric subjects like architecture, natural history and engineering because she believes there’s a thirst in the marketplace for intelligent programming that’s also accessible.
It’s up to Cheetham and her team to devise fresh ways to provide this type of programming, and she says the hiring of younger staffers will help. She tries to internally promote green employees through the ranks – starting as researchers and ending up producers – rather than discarding them into the freelance culture in UK television. ‘Often the best ideas come from people who’ve never made anything before,’ she says.
Could be that Cheetham remembers her own beginnings in TV, when she toiled as a researcher on BBC’s Nationwide. It’s been a long while since then, and now it’s time to see just how fast she can get Cheetah moving.