The big five ITV producers, once the unchallenged rulers of the country’s main commercial network, are facing an identity crisis.
Stripped of their power to dictate the program schedule by the creation of ITV’s new Network Center, they are struggling, sometimes against their own parent ITV companies, to carve for themselves a viable new role.
Last week, in a bid to tackle the issue, regional ITV station London Weekend Television re-launched its production division as a separate company, LWT Prods. , with a new logo. The move casts a sharper light on the contradictions confronting the production operations of the major ITV companies within the new network structure.
Despite nominally being set free to operate as a stand-alone business, LWT Prods. will continue to be tied primarily to supplying the ITV network. It will have all the financial responsibilities that come with independence, but little room to exploit the opportunities it brings.
Nick Elliott, managing director of LWT Prods., makes hopeful noises about working for competing stations such as Channel 4, the BBC and the emerging cable and satellite webs. But he concedes that his parent company would not be too happy if ITV’s ratings were dented by a hit LWT show screening on a rival channel.
Elliott puts his finger on the paradox: “They (LWT) want us to be profitable, but not profitable at their expense.” The problem is that being restricted to dealing predominantly with the ITV web places the ITV producers in a weak and vulnerable position.
“You can’t have a production company that isn’t free to create new markets for itself,” Elliott argues. “If we only sell to ITV, we have no leverage at all.”
Under the old ITV system, the fivebiggest ITV producers — LWT, Central, Granada, Yorkshire and Thames (now replaced by Carlton) — were guaranteed to sell a minimum amount of programming to the network each year at a fixed tariff. Now, all producers must pitch their projects to the Network Center, which commissions programs entirely on merit and negotiates prices on a case-by-case basis.
There is no longer any certainty that the big five will sell enough shows to ITV in any one year to cover the substantial fixed costs of running their own production division, let alone to earn attractive profits for shareholders.