Please adjust your sets: The TV hit factory has arrived

After two decades in the shadows, UKTV is emerging as one of Britain's most successful broadcasters. Ian Burrell discovers why it's turning people on
  • @iburrell

Tony Jordan, one of Britain's best-known television drama writers and the creator of the BBC's Life on Mars, sent a signal to the industry this month when he decided to place the "passion project" of his career with UKTV, rather than a better known broadcaster.

Having secured the rights to Jordan's ambitious supernatural drama Legion – and committed to showing it in 10 one-hour episodes – UKTV has sounded a fanfare of its own with the announcement of record revenues of £262m and an operating profit of £71m.

More than 20 years after it was launched as a commercial subsidiary of the BBC, this unusual broadcasting animal seems finally to be finding its place in the British television landscape.

Apart from public service broadcasters, UKTV has the best-performing British channel in the male-skewed Dave, and the most-watched factual and lifestyle channels in Yesterday and Really. Its growth to 42 million viewers a month across its portfolio has been driven by the availability of new broadcasting services from BT Vision, TalkTalk and You View. Total audiences grew by 10 per cent across the UKTV network between 2011 and 2012.

The figures are encouraging for the American media company Scripps Networks Interactive, which bought its 50 per cent share of UKTV from Virgin Media in 2011. Scripps – which is known in the United States as a lifestyle media business and the owner of the HGTV (Home & Garden Television) cable and satellite network – owns UKTV in partnership with BBC Worldwide, the BBC's commercial arm.

"It's the first time we've done a financial release, said Darren Childs, chief executive of UKTV, in an interview with The Independent. "It is part of us becoming significant in size and building our reputation as a commissioner of content."

UKTV's portfolio is made up of 10 channels: Watch, Dave, Gold, Alibi, Eden, Yesterday, Really, Home, Good Food and Drama.

Mr Childs joined the broadcaster in 2010 from BBC Worldwide, where he was managing director of global TV networks. Having previously been known as a home for repeat programmes, UKTV last year began to reposition itself as an originator of content with a remake of the popular 1980s political satire Yes, Prime Minister. Although some critics complained that the show, starring David Haig and Henry Goodman, lacked the spite of modern politics, it formed part of a much bigger £110m investment programme that included The Comic Strip Presents: Five Go to Rehab, with Adrian Edmondson and Dawn French. You, Me and Them, a new sitcom starring Anthony Head and Lindsay Duncan, has been commissioned from Hat Trick Productions and will be shown next month.

Although Jordan's Legion is to be shown on UKTV's entertainment channel Watch, the broadcaster has launched a new channel, Drama, to showcase that genre.

Mr Childs, who has also worked at Sony Pictures Television, said it was essential to improve the output, as the previous growth it enjoyed from traditional television platforms begins to falter and advertising revenue stagnates. "For us to continue to grow we have to take market share; and to do that we have to persuade people to watch more of our content," he said. "That means it is a natural thing to think that by investing in content and putting as much money on screen as possible we can convert that into increased viewership – and that allows us to increase our share of the [advertising] pie."

But even if audiences have increased, Mr Childs faces a battle to convince the television production community to come to UKTV with its programme ideas, given its longstanding reputation for showing re-runs. "Sometimes it's easier to change the public's perception than it is to change the industry's perception," he admitted.

UKTV is also focusing on digital viewing, offering audiences greater opportunities to watch programmes outside the traditional linear schedule. "We have been investing heavily in digital inventory, to grow the digital ad revenue," he said. "There is growth in the digital side of the business and it's very important that we have invested significantly in our digital assets, such as our own view-on-demand player and the Dave app."

UKTV's channels

Free to air:

Dave: UK's biggest non-public service channel, with 26 million viewers a month

Yesterday: UK's biggest factual channel

Really: UK's biggest lifestyle channel

Drama: recently launched mixture of drama, factual and comedy re-runs

Pay TV:

Watch: Home of Dynamo: Magician Impossible, shown in 200 countries

Gold: Just screened new Yes, Prime Minister episodes

Alibi: US and UK crime drama series

Good Food: Masterchef, Nigel Slater and other cookery re-runs

Home: Interior design, DIY and home makeover shows

Eden: Niche factual programming, led by David Attenborough's Natural Curiosities