United Kingdom

LONDON — Sweeping changes are raising the temperature across British webs as new execs attempt to prepare their companies for the digital age.

Veteran U.K. showbiz topper Michael Grade was the surprise choice for the helm at battling British terrestrial web ITV. Grade took over in January to oversee what he hopes will be a revival of flagship web ITV1, parts of which he recently described as being “creatively bankrupt.”

Meanwhile, Five has a new managing director of content, ex-Flextech chief Lisa Opie, and Channel 4 will soon welcome back Julian Bellamy from the BBC to take charge of programs at the main station.

At BSkyB, Dawn Airey, managing director of Sky Networks, has quit to help set up a new company, Iostar. Taking on many of her responsibilities is British buyer Sophie Turner Laing, recently promoted at the paybox to managing director, entertainment.

BSkyB has pulled some of its channels, including flagship entertainment net Sky One, from Virgin Media — the rebranded cable combo NTL — in a fight over a carriage deal.

What all this means for those Brits making the annual spring trek to Cannes is unclear — other than that buyers sound more desperate than usual to avoid paying top dollar. They are determined to duck a rerun of the eyebrow-raising prices shelled out last fall — around $1.9 million an episode — for renewals of “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” by Sky and Channel 4, respectively.

“This is significantly more than we’d ever pay for an original drama,” says ITV director of television Simon Shaps. “Other channels will have to make their own decisions, but at that level the economics are tricky.

But talk is cheap, and it remains to be seen if British buyers can stick to their words in such a competitive TV market as the U.K.

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