British television is facing uncertain times, as U.K. broadcasters have become targets for foreign takeovers.
The recent $14.6 billion deal that will see 21st Century Fox take over London-based European pay TV operator Sky underscores the fact that the plunge in the value of the pound, provoked by last June’s Brexit vote, has made British media assets relatively cheap. Speculation now swirls around which asset will be next in line for poaching.
Top of the list is ITV, the commercial broadcaster that brought “Downton Abbey” into the homes of millions of Brits. Since 2009, ITV’s revenue has grown 58%, to $3.77 billion, fueled by a near doubling of non-advertising revenue to $2.11 billion. In the first nine months of 2016, ITV’s five channels commanded a 21% share of the audience, led by reality shows like “Britain’s Got Talent” and “The X Factor,” and dramas like “Coronation Street” and “Victoria.”
Much of ITV’s recent success is due to CEO Adam Crozier, who took charge in 2010 determined to reduce the broadcaster’s reliance on the U.K. advertising market. ITV has instead become a producing powerhouse. Its ITV Studios division generates more than 7,000 hours of content per year, including the costume drama “Poldark” (which has been sold to 107 countries) and “Hell’s Kitchen USA” (196 countries). Crozier has also gone on a major shopping spree, buying production companies such as Talpa Media (“The Voice”) and Leftfield Pictures (“Real Housewives of New Jersey”).
Ironically, that aggressive acquisitions policy has made ITV an appealing target. “ITV is very much a significant, attractive business,” says media analyst Claire Enders. “The entertainment industry is ruled by a handful of companies, and there are only a handful of great prizes.”
John Malone’s international cable giant Liberty Global appears best-positioned to make a play for ITV, in which it already holds a 9.9% stake. However, the fact that Liberty Global also owns U.K. pay TV company Virgin Media could pose antitrust issues. NBCUniversal has also been suggested as a potential buyer; asked about the possibility of a bid for ITV at a conference last summer in London, NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke was noncommittal. “Nothing to say there,” he responded.
Enders believes an American company will buy ITV, though suitors may bide their time in order to get a better sense of the fallout from Brexit and whether ITV can recover some of its lost advertising.
Tim Westcott, senior principal analyst at IHS Technology, says ITV’s ownership of production companies with international reach makes it a good buy for a U.S. company. “The attraction of ITV would be to increase their international presence with one deal,” he notes.
ITV is not the only British broadcaster that could be in foreign sights. The government is mulling whether to privatize Channel 4, which is publicly owned but funded by advertising. But because of its public status, Channel 4 is subject to regulatory controls that may deter buyers; these stipulate that content be “innovative and distinctive,” and that it stimulate public debate, nurture new talent, champion “alternative points of view,” and “inspire change in people’s lives.”
Any attempt to change that mission is likely to elicit protest from U.K. politicians, cultural commentators, and TV industry figures. John McVay, chief executive of producers’ body Pact, says the remit leads Channel 4 to commission a rich variety of shows and gives entrants a foothold in the business. “Channel 4 has a very important role in the U.K. ecology because it allows people to get started. Anything that diminished that would be of real detriment,” he says.
Many analysts agree that a sale of Channel 4 to a private buyer is unlikely for now, because the government has more pressing items on the agenda, including Brexit negotiations with the European Union.
It isn’t only acquisition talk that’s unsettling the British biz. As viewers migrate online, British broadcasters have had to step up their streaming platforms, such as BBC’s iPlayer and the ITV Hub, both of which are commissioning online-only content. Another shift has been the government’s decision to allow independent production companies to compete for BBC commissions, and for the pubcaster’s BBC Studios to produce shows for other broadcasters.
“That is a major paradigm shift in our ecology, and it is a profound change to the BBC in terms of how it will operate and its opportunities to commission more broadly in the market,” McVay says.
But the prospect of independent production companies going up against the BBC does not worry him. “Bring it on,” he says. “Competition is a good thing in broadcasting. [Our members] are very good at it.”
Henry Chu contributed to this story.