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United Kingdom

Uncertainty leads to more investment in domestic shows

LONDON — Blighty’s biggest broadcasters are banking on home-produced fare to see them through tough times.

The U.K.’s two main webs, ITV1 and BBC1, together account for a shade over 40% of all viewing, and each network forks out around a hefty $1.8 billion a year on programs. Of this, the lion’s share is invested in domestic shows. (Entertainment and drama inevitably soak up the most cash.)

“The day that Google or Joost or any of these people start investing £1 billon a year in U.K. content is the day I’ll be worried,” said ITV topper Michael Grade last month at the IBC confab in Amsterdam.

“They’re all parasites,” he added. “They just live off our content is what they do. As long as we can create the content, the content is the keys to the castle for us going forward.”

Yet many of Grade’s peers believe that ITV faces an uncertain future not because of any threats from online content but because there doesn’t seem to be a lot of potential long-term growth in advertising-funded broadcasting — and they further predict that it will only be a matter of time before program budgets are cut.

“ITV is caught in the cleft stick of a (declining) ad market and a completely protected BBC,” opines the ex head of Channel Five, David Elstein, a former ITV program chief during less challenging times.

Meanwhile the U.K.’s Channel 4 and Five have their own, very different problems to wrestle with.

Channel 4, lobbying for a public subsidy to defend its remit better word choice? as a pubcaster, has trimmed back U.S. shows and re-deployed this coin into more upscale U.K. fare, including documentaries.

Five, owned by RTL Group, is also feeling the pinch – albeit for very different reasons. Minus a CEO since the sudden departure of Jane Lighting in the spring, Five’s primetime sked has taken a hit: it’s ratings are down by an alarming 10% year-on-year.

Lighting’s successor, Dawn Airey, who is expected to arrive at Five this month October, will need to prove that her old skills are as sharp as ever; Airey was Five’s first program director.

“We’re in a transitional period right now,” says a U.K. media consultant. “So far there’s been no fundamental switch of advertising money out of broadcasting into online. But at some point the tipping point will be reached. There will then have to be a fundamental reappraisal.”

Where that leaves ITV’s program spend is anyone’s guess.

TOP 3

“The X-Factor” (ITV1)

“Coronation Street” (ITV1)

“EastEnders” (BBC1)