UKTV boss wants to get your attention
In the corner of the Dave room at UKTV stands a knight in shining armour which, like a returning Crusader, has recently come back from the annual battleground of the Edinburgh Television Festival slightly the worse for wear and minus its shield.
Dave is having a good campaign, having grown 18 per cent in the last year, and the 10-channel network of UKTV is expanding at a faster rate than any other broadcaster in British commercial television. This must produce a sense of vindication in Darren Childs, the UKTV chief executive, who arrived at the network two years ago with a background in sales and doubts about his creative instincts for managing a television portfolio.
But Mr Childs has shown he has a creative flair which extends to interior design. He sits down in a deep, leather armchair alongside Sir Lancelot and explains how he has reshaped the working culture he inherited from David Abraham, who was recruited as chief executive of Channel 4 after skilfully repositioning UKTV as a roster of distinct brands, from the factual channel Yesterday to the crime-driven Alibi.
The Dave room – designed to look and feel like a gentlemen's club to reflect the channel's male skew – was part of Mr Childs' vision. Almost as soon as he took the job, UKTV was forced out of its central London offices as Virgin Media (which had approved Mr Childs' appointment) sold its stake in the business to the American media company Scripps Network Interactive, which now jointly owns the company with BBC Worldwide, the corporation's commercial arm. Mr Childs had to find new premises.
The operation he now oversees in Hammersmith, west London, feels like a new media company with its kitchen area, table football and themed meeting rooms. The Eden room, dedicated to UKTV's wildlife channel, feels like a park space with its fake grass flooring. Home, as the No 1 lifestyle channel in Britain, has inevitably decorated its corner with the latest designer furnishings.
"Creative businesses are team sports. It needs a lot of people to make television programmes and run channels. It's a collaborative process, and you need an office environment that encourages that," said Mr Childs, who was formerly managing director of BBC Worldwide Channels, overseeing a portfolio that included BBC America and increasing profits at his division by 34.2 per cent in his final year.
Mr Childs wants the UKTV channels to be more than homes for repeated shows – the business has traditionally been heavily dependent on its relationship with the BBC archive – and has increased content investment to over £100m a year. Dynamo: Magician Impossible, featuring the Bradford magician Steven Frayne, gave UKTV's Watch channel the breakout success of the year in the pay-TV sector. The Watch team worked hard to give the show a modern feel, pairing Frayne with music stars such as rapper Wretch 32 and filming in a fly-on-the-wall style.
Frayne had made television appearances before, but it was UKTV that took a chance on him.
"We have brought him in, developed him, nurtured him, brought his talent out, and he has been a big success," said Mr Childs. "Something like Dynamo has massive effect on the confidence the organisation has for making hit shows. It's like having a hit record. It makes you confident about taking creative risk."
He cites the comedian Dara O Briain's show on Dave, School of Hard Sums, as another example of UKTV trying to "differentiate" from its competitors. "Everybody said you are absolutely nuts, you can't put comedy and maths together – it was a massive success for us."
Mr Childs' business philosophy is founded on getting the "culture" and "purpose" of the company right. The rest will follow, he said. "Profit and revenue growth is not a purpose, it's not why people come to work. It's what boards and senior management are interested in, but it doesn't motivate people down through the organisation. They want to come here to do great work."
He argues that UKTV is in the "attention business" rather than just the television sector, meaning that it has to do more to make people aware of its range of offerings by clever cross-promotion.
The revitalisation of the UKTV portfolio began five years ago with Dave, but the organisation – dogged by the rights issues that come with screening so much repeat content – has struggled to capitalise on the potential for growing the new brands online and on mobile devices.
"It has taken us some time, to be honest with you, to follow through with that promise of making those brands live and breathe off screen," Mr Childs admitted.
"When I walked in the door this was like a digital-ready company – the brands were ready for digital exploitation but it hadn't executed. We hadn't done an app, the website was out of date, we hadn't done (online) players, we hadn't done VOD (video-on-demand)."
VOD services are now being rolled out, increasing capacity for the valuable pre-roll advertising that precedes online viewing. But Mr Childs knows he needs more revenue streams besides.
"The television advertising market is flat. It has had its ups and downs based on the recession, but if you were to average it out over the last 10 years it's broadly flat."
New initiatives have included an app for the Hairy Bikers show on the Good Food channel that has encouraged viewers to buy music – such as Green Onions by Booker T and the MGs and Sweet Home Alabama by Lynyrd Skynyrd – with UKTV taking a share of the micro-payments. The network is experimenting with ad-funded programming such as Yesterday channel's Find My Past, which was supported by the genealogy website of the same name.
"If we can get people's attention we have to find ways of making money out of that," he said. "If that's buying a song on iTunes, downloading a video, streaming something online, watching a non-linear show on Sky, we have to find ways of monetising that, because the advertising market is flat."
If he is "going to be blunt" he knows he must combine commercial innovation with shows that take viewing share from rival stations.
"In a flat market, for us to win, somebody else has to lose."
With a fairly small team of 250, UKTV has grown more in the last year than in the previous four combined, and has a monthly reach of 45 per cent of ABC1 adults. "This is a very profitable business which is a small FTSE 250 in terms of size," he said, adding "we don't release (financial) numbers".
UKTV still has work to do in raising profile, especially of some of its niche brands. But for all the name-changing, one channel has remained synonymous during its history. Gold, like UKTV itself, is 20 years old in November. It, too, is in need of a refresh, and as part of a new programming showcase unveiled today it is being given a batch of revitalised, classic British shows, including a remake of the BBC political sitcom Yes Prime Minister. UKTV has negotiated the use of unseen material from the Morecambe and Wise estates that will underpin a four-part series to be shown at Christmas.
The Comic Strip team have been brought back to make a new show for Gold called Five Go to Rehab, which is currently filming.
"We can make sure that the brand is still relevant for the next 20 years," said Mr Childs. Still relevant, and still making money.
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