UKTV fights whisperers in struggle for Channel 5

THE TUESDAY INTERVIEW David Asper

The Covent Garden offices of UKTV, the leading bidder for the Channel 5 licence, look like a high-class squat. There are computers on desks, boxes of press releases cluttering the hall but no decoration, no character. There is, indeed, a pervading sense of impermanence.

Hardly suprising perhaps, as the man driving UKTV, David Asper, lives in Winnipeg, Canada, commuting back and forth to London.

Moreoever, most of the partners of UKTV are based outside the country, brought together simply by the attractive prospect of running a national television channel.

But perish the thought that their bid is anything but serious. Mr Asper, following weeks of silence, is Messianic on the subject of television generally and UK TV's strengths specifically. Having initially left his competion room to fight the public relations battle he has now realised he must join in.

"It took some time getting used to, that's for sure," Mr Asper says of the fierce whispering campaign mounted by the various competing bidders for Channel 5. He is now ready to talk - with a vengeance.

"It's like a check list, " he says of the PR onslaught mounted by Virgin TV and Channel 5 broadcasting, the principal competition.

"You write to the PR firm saying we need a campaign to say the high bidder overbid. Number two, attack their programming as being ridiculous. Number three, find out anything else you can attack them on. Number four, who are the personalities, and can we destroy their credibility."

Mr Asper plays the aggrieved party with undeniable charm, his incredulity at the gall of his competitors rendered all the more convincing by the suppressed outrage that colours his otherwise flat Canadian tones.

Betraying his lawyer's training, he speaks in lists, and in long, well- constructed sentences, keeping little back. Looking younger even than his 36 years, he exudes a certain authority, most obviously when he cuts off a colleague who has interrupted him.

His sudden loquaciousness suggests he realises the competition has UKTV on the run. For, indeed, it appears to be the view of most of the industry that the consortium overbid when it offered pounds 36m a year over 10 years for the right to own and operate Britain's last terrestrial channel. Moreover, many feel its programming schedule is weak, and too dependent on co-productions with Canada and Australia.

Even the members of the UKTV group - independent producer SelecTV, Scandinavian Broadcsting System, Australia's Ten Network, and Mr Asper's own CanWest Global Communications - attract criticism of the kind designed to undermine their chances of winning the auction.

On programming, Mr Asper rejects the criticism with some anger. "Has anyone read our submission to the [Independent Television Commisison]?" he asks rhetorically. "We provide a very detailed schedule, in explict detail, significantly more so than any of the other applications."

He also defends the co-production approach, whereby programming will be commissioned in partnership with producers in other countries, allowing UKTV to reduce costs.

"This is the future of independent television," he claims. The approach allows UKTV to establish a programming budget of pounds 75m to pounds 85m a year, far lower than the competition.

On the matter of overbidding, Mr Asper dismisses the charges with a wave of a hand.

"We have been working on this for several years, since the last time the ITC invited applications for Channel 5 [abandoned in 1992]. Our bid was based on the most conservative model."

According to CanWest's own figures, it intends to have a 6.6 per cent share of audience in homes able to receive Channel 5, rising to 11 per cent by the end of the licence period.

Mr Asper points out how underdeveloped the UK market is. "In Winnipeg, we have five mainstream broadcasters, 80 per cent cable penetration and a population of 650,000 and we make pretty good money. In the UK, you have one mainstream commercial broadcaster, 20 per cent cable penetration and one of the most highly developed advertising markets in the world."

Intriguingly, little of the industry criticism appears targeted specifically at CanWest, the Canadian broadcaster that controls Global Television, established 20 years ago as an embryonic "third force" to compete with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and CTV, the Canadian equivalent of the ITV network in Britain.

Mr Asper's father, Izzy, has played a leading part in developing Global nearly since its inception, and helped pioneer the mix of popular US programming and domestic content that is still the recipe for profitability in the fragmented Canadian TV market.

David Asper joined the "family firm" rather late in the day, having spent several years as a successful trial lawyer. He gained prominence in his own right defending David Milgaard, a man wrongly accused of murder, whose sentence was finally overturned.

Mr Asper did legal work for CanWest's flagship Manitoba station CKND, moving on to handle its international interests, including its 14.9 per cent interest in Australia's Ten Network. The company also has a 20 per cent stake in TV3, a commercial broadcaster in New Zealand and 50 per cent of La Red channel in Chile.

While few can argue with CanWest's ability to make money in television - revenues were C$175.9m (pounds 80m) last year, generating operating profits of C$50.9m - there are still doubts about some of its partners. The principal concern is the amount of foreign involvement in the UK TV bid.

SBS, nominally a European broadcaster, may indeed be controlled outright by US interests. US broadcaster ABC has 23.5 per cent, while US investor Harry Sloan, who intends to take up residence in the UK, owns another 9.7 per cent.

US institutional investors owned a further 35.3 per cent of the company as of 31 March 1995, according to filings to the Securities Exchange Commission.

Mr Asper concedes there may be a problem with both SBS and Ten Network, in which CanWest has a 14.9 per cent voting interest but a 57.5 per cent economic interest. Accordingly, the CanWest consortium has parked shares with UK trustees, who will vote the non-European stake in Channel 5 in the event the ITC disqualifies some of UKTV's backers.

Mr Asper's openness about the terms of the bid suggests he is not intending to take any further criticism lying down. Realising it can't beat the competition by keeping mum, CanWest, finally, is on the offensive. The home stretch of the race for Channel 5 has begun in earnest.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
people
News
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
News
newsAstonishing moment a kangaroo takes down a drone
Arts and Entertainment
The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit director Peter Jackson with his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
film
Life and Style
tech
News
people
News
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - LONDON

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000 + Car + Pension: SThree: SThree are a ...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K: SThree: We consistently strive to be the...

SThree: Graduate Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35000: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 b...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K - £45K: SThree: SThree Group have been we...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'