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Does ITV’s Buying Spree Include an Escape Plan?

Five years ago, ITV was widely regarded as a struggling British TV network that had too often missed the boat.

The naysayers argued that the net had failed to diversify into pay TV and online services. Too many of its shows came from outside producers, limiting the company’s upside in success. In the booming international TV marketplace, ITV was eclipsed by global-minded production players including FremantleMedia and Endemol.

Spool forward to 2015: ITV’s reputation could not be more different. The network has been reinvigorated by the success of “Downton Abbey.” The company has been on a megabucks acquisition spree in the U.S., U.K. and Europe to beef up its production and distribution capabilities. And the stock price is buoyant; ITV, under the leadership of CEO Adam Crozier, has become a darling of London’s investment community (aka the City).

But as the network prepares to mark its 60th anniversary this fall, there are questions about its long-term strategy, and speculation that it may be an acquisition target itself. NBCUniversal, Discovery Communications and John Malone’s Liberty Media are seen as potential suitors.

ITV’s U.S. operation has faced executive shakeups during the past year, with the departure of Paul Buccieri, who was managing director of ITV Studios Intl., and Orly Adelson, the seasoned producer who exited her post as president of ITV Studios America on July 13, after barely 18 months in the job.

Sources familiar with the situation said the division’s rapid growth via acquisition of production companies has led to a somewhat unruly environment within the Los Angeles-based U.S. office. The companies, which include “Duck Dynasty” producer Gurney Prods. and “Pawn Stars” producer Leftfield Entertainment, still operate autonomously. But with so many producers working under one roof, there’s been a big management void since Buccieri left late last year for a senior post at A+E Networks. Meanwhile, Adelson was said to have been frustrated by a lack of resources applied to development for the ITV Studios America banner, which works independently of the many production firms.

ITV is expected to name a replacement for Buccieri in the coming weeks. Adelson’s exit provides “the opportunity to restructure the business to better reflect our growth and ambitions for the future,” the company stated.

Among TV-biz rivals on both sides of the pond, there is skepticism about whether ITV has overpaid for some of its acquisitions, and whether those high prices will force a day of reckoning down the road. Crozier declined an interview request for this story.

Certainly, ITV’s effort to grow its presence outside the U.S. is unique in British broadcasting. Its most recent big bet was placed in March on John de Mol’s Talpa Media, home of “The Voice” franchise. The deal came with an initial pricetag of $530 million, which could rise to $1.2 billion over eight years if certain profit targets are met.

Although ITV has spent more than $1 billion on acquisitions in the past two and a half years, it hasn’t lost any luster with investors, who believe the money has been well spent.

“The City is very supportive of ITV’s strategy,” said Numis Securities media analyst Paul Richards. “ITV built up its production business by stealth. It didn’t buy an Endemol or an All3Media, but has acquired production companies carefully and made sure the deals are properly structured. It has paid sensible prices.”

The sea change in the culture of ITV began with the appointment in late 2009 of chairman Archie Norman, a former Conservative Parliament member whose background was in retail, not television. Norman’s decision to appoint another outsider in Crozier looks far-sighted.

The new management team was determined that ITV’s business should be restructured and diversified. One of Crozier’s first steps was to hire veteran programmer Kevin Lygo as managing director of ITV Studios. He’d worked at all the big traditional U.K. TV networks, and secretly toiled away as a screenwriter.

“At its simplest, we wanted to make great programs for anyone who wanted to buy them, to try to own them, and then sell them around the world,” said Lygo.

As a business, ITV Studios has tripled in size during the past five years. In financial results announced in March, its revenue was up 9% to $1.4 billion. Roughly half of this is understood to be generated in the U.S. (figures are not broken down by territory).

Now that ITV has a growth story to tell, whispers that it’s on the block are growing louder. And neither Crozier nor Norman would be sentimental should one of the U.K’s most enduring and influential TV brands come under foreign ownership.

“Unlike the people who used to run ITV, the present management is not steeped in broadcasting,” observed Toby Syfret at Enders Analysis. “They are not only transforming ITV, but running a very different sort of business than their predecessors, and can therefore be a lot more objective about the economics.”

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