Media mavens in Blighty are buzzing at the prospect that the U.K.’s biggest broadcaster, ITV, may end up in U.S. hands as a rush of consolidation reshapes the British media landscape.
All year, U.S. media giants have been splashing cash on U.K. TV assets. Viacom scooped up broadcaster Channel 5 in a $757 million deal that surprised media watchers on both sides of the Pond. Meanwhile ITV itself has been on a buying spree of indie U.S. production companies including Leftfield Entertainment, home of “Pawn Stars.”
As tech companies like Amazon and Netflix increasingly compete head-on with TV networks for content, there is growing speculation that ITV will be bought by a big U.S. media firm looking to bolster its own content assets.
In July, John Malone’s Liberty Global paid $824 million for the 6.4% stake in ITV owned by BSkyB. Liberty Global partnered with Discovery earlier this year in the $930 million deal to buy All3Media, whose shows include “Undercover Boss.”
At a recent conference call to discuss second-quarter earnings, ITV CEO Adam Crozier played down the idea of a U.S. takeover, but he did acknowledge the circumstances were right, citing the hunger among U.S. companies for international growth, tax advantages and low-debt financing costs.
“All of those reasons are combining to drive an industry to convergence,” Crozier said.
Discovery Communications is seen as a likely suitor for ITV, which is valued at upwards of $16 billion.
Viacom’s decision to enter the U.K. public service terrestrial TV biz by buying Channel 5 is generating a great deal of interest locally.
For more than 20 years, Viacom operated successfully in Britain via its traditional pay TV business, running local versions of cable webs such as MTV, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central. With growth in pay U.K. TV flatlining, it makes sense to expand into the U.K. free-to-air business.
Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman has said the company intends to invest more money in domestic shows.
The thinking is to increase audiences and ad revenues in the U.K., and further monetize content via overseas distribution deals, both inhouse and further afield.
“We will be able to export all that great content on many of our channels around the world, including the U.S., and we’ll
be able to develop formats, as the U.K. does so well, that could work in other parts of the world,” Dauman explained. “So buying Channel 5 has a lot of very positive attributes.”
British biz watchers see a tougher road ahead for Viacom, which will have a learning curve in running a broadcast net. One of the looming questions is whether Channel 5 will be able to renew hit “Big Brother” — and how great a price hike Endemol will seek when the deal for the show expires this year.
One thing’s for sure: as Viacom moves deeper into the U.K. market with Channel 5, the odds of ITV being a takeover target for a big U.S. player continue to shorten.