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ITV on the prowl for Yank sitcoms

For the first time in years, ITV is in the market to buy American sitcoms, the new network director Marcus Plantin revealed yesterday.

Plantin and his buying team will travel to Los Angeles next week on ITV’s annual November shopping trip, and their hit list will include half-hour comedies.

“I believe ITV could benefit from one or two U.S. sitcoms in the schedule at particular times,” Plantin said. “ITV should be a happy marriage between the best offerings the U.K. producers can give us and the best U.S. or Australian programs.”

In the past, ITV has shown little interest in such U.S. hits as “Roseanne, “”Cheers” and “The Cosby Show.” These have been picked up instead by its minority-audience sister web Channel 4, where they have become important ratings winners.

The success of these shows on Channel 4 led ITV to believe they could draw bigger audiences if screened on the mainstream web.

Plantin said, “Our friends at Channel 4 cannot expect me not to be interested in the purchase of those kind of comedies.”

However, he appeared to rule out any attempt to poach existing shows from Channel 4: “You’ve got to be very careful in the U.K. about shows moving channels,” he said.

Ironically, most of Channel 4’s major U.S. shows were acquired on its behalf by the ITV buying team, headed by Don Gale, using ITV’s greater negotiating clout with the large Hollywood producers.

But from next year, such co-operation will become less frequent. The financial link between ITV and Channel 4 will be severed, and the two webs will compete for advertising revenues for the first time.

Per Gale, this means “there will now be competitive program buying against Channel 4,” although the ITV team still will sometimes work on behalf of the minority web.

Gale retires from his job at the end of the year, to be replaced by Pat Mahoney, currently at Thames TV. Mahoney will travel to Los Angeles next week as part of the ITV team, along with Plantin, Gale and Gale’s deputy, Barry Wood.

This is a much smaller group than ITV usually sends, reflecting the recent changes in the web’s structure. ITV now has a single central body responsible for commissioning, acquiring and scheduling programs. Previously, these activities were carried out by committees made up of representatives from the 15 regional ITV stations.

In past years, the ITV purchasing committee has joined Gale and Wood on their November trip to Hollywood.

Gale believes the new streamlined system will have considerable advantages, and may result in ITV buying more shows from abroad: “There have been times in the past when we haven’t moved as quickly as we should have done, and we haven’t made the right selection. When you are making decisions by committee, you end up playing safe, rather than venturing into the unknown, taking risks.”

Informed sources also suggest the buyers were hampered by the fact that the acquisitions committee was made up of ITV producers, who tended tohave a built-in bias against imports, because such shows were competing against their own productions for network slots.

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