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Can ITV function with 15 different owners?

The beginning of 1993 saw a complete overhaul of the ITV system, Britain's most watched network. It is a development that is going to drastically affect the future of the broadcasters that constitute the network.

The advertising-supported service, which comprises 15 regional broadcasters and a breakfast (a.m. only) TV service, began a new phase in its history last January. Each ITV broadcaster won a to-year franchise in a controversial auction, which gave the licenses to the highest bidders. Some have since discovered that it is going to be a costly affair. Among the winners were four first-time broadcasters, including Carlton TV for the London region and Meridian Broadcasting for the south and southeast England area.

More significantly. ITV recently opened its first "Network Centre." The Centre's function is to commission programs for national transmission, compared with the past when programs were acquired only through the individual ITV companies. No longer are the production units of the individual broadcaster guaranteed airtime; they now have to compete with independent producers who are also scrambling to get their programs transmitted.

The Network Centre's program scheduler, Marcus Plantin, does not care who makes the programs as long as they boost ITV's ratings in the face of aggressive competition from Channel 4. cable and satellite TV.

Only 10 months old, the new ITV is still preoccupied with fine-tuning its goals. But inevitably, the changes also imply major ramifications for each ITV company, whose respective requirements differ greatly.

Peter Ibbotson, Carlton TV's director of corporate affairs, is interested in the long-term fate of the non-broadcast aspects of ITV. "ITV cannot function with 15 different owners. That means too many overheads in the system. The only way it can sustain itself in the next 10 years is to squeeze out any duplication of overheads for non-program-making departments."

Another ITV executive who believes the network is moving in the right direction is Mike Watts, managing director of Central Production, the program-making arm of Central TV, which broadcasts to the Midlands region of England. "This new ITV is showing signs of being bolder. It is dropping programs that it feels are not working." Central, which has traditionally been one of the most powerful five ITV companies (the Big Five), has just seen the Network Centre drop Blockbusters, a long-running and popular game show. Plantin feels that after 10 years, it is no longer appropriate for the future ITV. On the other hand. Peak Practice, Central's new drama series is returning next year. The program was a hit, eventually attracting 13 million viewers each week. "Plantin wants another 13 hours for next year, compared with just eight this year," Watts disclosed.

To counteract the more unpredictable nature of the new system, Watts suggested that production companies should eventually be able to have daily contact with the Network Centre--mainly to better understand its requirements.

But he warns that the production units of the broadcast companies cannot afford to be complacent. Unlike Carlton's Ibbotson, however, it is the program production operations that Watts feels may need consolidating. "All of us require greater program development resources than we did in the past. This may mean the merger of some of the ITV companies. At the moment, nine of the broadcasters are also regular program suppliers. But in about two years' time, some of them will have to decide if they can afford to continue to do so."

For some of the smaller broadcasters, which suffered under the old system dominated by the Big Five, this new phase means a chance to correct the imbalance. In the opinion of Gus Macdonald, chief executive of Scottish Television, the new set-up is more equitable.

"For years, we were marginalized; we were out of the (Big Five's) magic circle." This meant that his viewers in Scotland were forced to watch English programs they did not want. "For historical reasons, the Scots watch more U.S. programs than viewers in southeast England, including the capital London," noted Macdonald.
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Publication:Video Age International
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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