It’s Shake-Up Time In British Showbiz

The unthinkable happened in 1990: British broadcasting was deregulated.

In addition, rival direct-broadcast satellite systems Sky and BSB faced up to dire reality and merged after each separately lost millions and nearly all hope as well. Both the nation and film production slipped into another recession.

Panicky subsidized legit, after more than living up to its non-profit status, hit the may day button. And Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady who once said she wasn’t for turning, was instead turned out altogether.

Meanwhile, this year promises to be one of recession, which may bite deeper than expected.

But economic woes aren’t everywhere. Prospering exhibs may ask themselves: “What recession?” as they watch their boxoffice receipts extend their resurgent performance.

On the other hand, production is in a deepening downturn that some believe may threaten the industry’s infrastructure if things don’t pick up.

Brit pics of late haven’t excited international distribs as they did three or four years ago. The glow of “Letter To Brezhnev,” “Scandal,” “My Beautiful Laundrette” and other b.o. payoffs has faded. As for exhibition’s ongoing recovery, that is owed mainly to Yankee blockbusters and the strengthening grip on the British market of the Hollywood majors, which between them last year hogged some 80% of the biz.

A complicating grief has been the constraint on Yank features locationing here, thanks to a soft U.S. dollar in combo with the cost of shooting in the no-longer-cheap U.K.

The main focus of 1990, however, was broadcasting, chiefly for the shock of deregulation legislation and government plans for a third commercial tv channel by 1993. Commercial tv franchises henceforth will be awarded to the deepest pockets via auction bidding, raising the fear that in due course a scramble for audience and advertising will see populism overcome the prevailing public-service ethos.

The broadcasting year also saw a silly assault of state censorship, the imposition of a fuzzy and probably unworkable “impartiality code,” and the collateral creation of a Broadcasting Standards Council as the final arbiter on taste in programming. The censorship was in line with the tradition of secrecy in Britain, but was silly because it only prohibited the replaying of Ulster “terrorist” voices; news departments got around the rule either by employing dialect actors to lip-synch the verbatim remarks or by anchorman paraphrase.

Elsewhere, the U.K. homevideo business continued well ahead of other European markets and was third only to the U.S. and Japan in sales volume, despite ominous clouds including the collapse of two over-extended suppliers, Parkfield and Stylus.

For the laggard cable tv industry, the year was notable for a surge of American investors in new franchises, cable being one carrier with no foreign ownership prohibition. Some 90% of the licenses here are foreign-controlled. Cable too is clouded by financial uncertainty, and some of the new franchises may never be activated.

On the legit scene, the commercial West End had another robust year in business if not critical terms, but many a non-profit was staggered by deep deficits as the economic squeeze tightened.

The Royal Shakespeare Company felt compelled to mothball London operations temporarily. Late in the year, the government came up with a money sweetener to tide over some subsidized outfits, including RSC, but for many 1991-92 will remain touch and go.

Beclouding everything this year, in fact, are inflation (currently near 10%), continuing stiff interest rates (14%) and the deepening recession. Investment is on the retreat as cash flow slows and debt burdens mount, curtailing state-of-the-art multiscreen cinema growth and other development.

The slump is also trimming tv ad budgets and reducing commercial stations’ profit margins. A sustained stall could affect programming, resulting in fewer and cheaper new shows, and more repeats.

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