Independently Welsh

Mathew Horsman talks to Chris Rowlands (right), head of HTV, about his small station's big adventure in the global TV market
Click to follow
"Oh, I say, let's explore this new market - global television rights," Julian exclaimed, raising his glass of ginger beer.

"Lovely idea," George responded,

"I love adventures." Timmy the dog barked his agreement.

Just like The Famous Five, the programme it makes for ITV, Chris Rowlands' HTV, the Welsh and West of England commercial television company, has embarked on a grand adventure, lining up international partners, making joint venture programmes and snapping up lucrative rights to quality television shows. The result: the rights division of HTV, Harvest, last week unveiled sharply higher earnings, and now accounts for 35 per cent of group profits. The company also signalled its intention to back quality films for cinema release and for the peak viewing schedule of ITV Network Centre, as part of ITV's pounds 100m film fund.

HTV, mind you, is small (ginger) beer next to the ITV giants such as Carlton, Granada and Yorkshire-Tyne Tees. But what it lacks in size it makes up for in focus.

Speaking just after unveiling the company's half-year profits in London last week, Rowlands made the point simply: "Everyone else is interested in acquiring cable channels, satellite channels, more terrestrial companies. We are concentrating on content provision."

HTV doesn't risk too much on expensive costume dramas and the like - although it is the producer of the new Poldark series, and the popular Wycliffe, which is beginning a run on ITV. More often, its programmes feature animals and animated creatures, the kind of "actors" that don't have to be paid residuals, and that can be sold year after year as new generations grow up and begin to watch television.

The expertise in wildlife programmes goes back years, and is one of the mainstays of the HTV library. Award-winning series, under the Partridge imprint, have made huge inroads even into the highly competitive US market.

Rowlands says the close partnerships the company has developed with broadcasters and producers overseas have been a key reason for its export success. Chief among these links are joint-production deals with the likes of Nirvana, the Canadian children's programme producer, and US-based broadcasters such as WNET.

The co-operative approach, and the emphasis on rights exploitation, is starting to win converts. Indeed, the ITV film fund, unveiled with great fanfare two months ago, is predicated on precisely the financing and production structure preferred by HTV. Roughly, that means lining up partners in advance, to share the development costs, and securing output deals - on cinema screens, or on television - in as many markets as possible. This approach also allows producers to fragment broadcast rights, selling programmes for limited periods in selected markets, thus generating the maximum revenues.

HTV today, with its core broadcasting businesses in Wales and the West and its extensive programme library and production facilities, is a far cry from the stumbling, messy company Rowlands inherited in 1993. When he joined as finance director, HTV had more than 50 different companies, including a fine arts division and an operation which manufactured carrier bags for Harrods.

"You can see why [the previous management] had decided to diversify," he says, gallantly. "There was a chance they wouldn't win their licence," following the introduction of competitive bidding for ITV franchises after the Broadcasting Act of 1990. "But some of it was clearly stupid."

Rowlands is notoriously taciturn in front of an audience, especially of journalists, and has the reputation in some circles for being humourless. One on one, however, he is far more forthcoming: even willing to make a few jokes, and polite enough to laugh at those cracked by his interlocutor.

But on one subject he is routinely tight-lipped: the future of HTV. Can the modestly sized company, whose profits, at pounds 7m a year, make it one of the smaller regional television companies, really survive as an independent?

Certainly the passage of the new Broadcasting Bill earlier this year has made the odds long indeed. Big ITV companies will now be able to own as many licences as they like, provided they do not exceed 15 per cent of total audience share (including the BBC).

The companies most likely to take advantage of that greater freedom are the two largest, Granada and Carlton, Michael Green's media giant. Granada looks likely to swoop on Yorkshire-Tyne Tees, in which it already has a healthy 27 per cent stake. Carlton's likely target is HTV.

"No comment," says Rowlands, who in any event is enjoined from talking openly for fear of affecting HTV's stratospheric share price. The company is now worth well over pounds 300m, and is trading at a whopping 80 per cent premium to the rest of the stock market. (A premium the company deserves, says the leading City bank NatWest Securities, which recently advised its clients to buy more stock.) And all because everyone in the City is sure Carlton (or maybe Lord Hollick's United News & Media) is poised to pounce.

"We have the future of our business to think about," Rowlands says, waving off questions about takeovers. (According to informed sources, he is still pretty confident he can stay independent, at least for now. He has bet a colleague pounds 100 that HTV will not be taken over before Christmas.)

Nor is Rowlands prepared to discuss another bit of corporate news. According to reports in The Independent last week, HTV is one of several bidders for Westcountry, the Channel 3 company in the South-west. The purchase would give it extra clout in the ITV network, although Westcountry is pretty small - with a market share of just 2.3 per cent, compared with HTV's 6 per cent.

Rowlands is quick to say that the fundamental business of HTV is far more important than any sideshow deal the company may do. Good programming, intelligently financed, co-operatively produced. Global markets as a target equal in importance to the bread-and-butter ITV. That's Rowlands' HTV. Will he be allowed to keep it?