Mathew Horsman on the rush to restructure ITV

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The Independent Online
United News & Media, Lord Hollick and Lord Stevens' TV and print conglomerate, last week became the latest ITV franchise holder to confirm it was restructuring its entertainment interests, partly by placing its production and broadcasting operations under an integrated management.

Carlton, holder of the London weekday and Central ITV franchises, did the same 18 months ago, creating Carlton UK Productions. Now, only Granada among the ITV giants has yet to take a similar plunge.

No doubt Duncan Lewis, newly installed as the head of the grandly renamed Granada Media Group, is reviewing his options. If he wants to cut costs further, he will have to do something relatively dramatic. After all, the company has already received the full "Granada" treatment at the hands of cost-cutter extraordinaire Charles Allen, now chief executive of the parent group. Word has it that GMG will announce its own restructuring within a month or two, probably placing its production activities under a single management, but taking care to keep separate teams in place for the two franchises - Granada and LWT - lest the Independent Television Commission begin to doubt Granada's commitment to regional programming.

That same structure will prove useful once Granada buys Yorkshire-Tyne Tees, which it is almost inevitably going to do. It will then have quite a production juggernaut at its disposal, taking in the undisputed TV talents of Yorkshire, Granada and LWT.

If the experiences at United and Carlton are any guide, no one at GMG need worry about their jobs. The changes are likely to be organisational, not personal.

Does all this restructuring matter? After all, United was at pains to say last week it was not adding a new management layer, and was not undermining the separate nature of its two ITV franchises, Anglia and Meridian, which will still have their own managing directors. So why restructure?

There are in fact great advantages to further integrating production at companies with more than one ITV franchise. The first is about the way programming is commissioned and produced for the ITV network itself.

The second is about positioning broadcasters to supply programmes to all and sundry - the BBC's overseas channels, for example, or the raft of cable and satellite channels that are gaining a growing share of total television audience in the UK, or even for channels launched by the ITV companies themselves.

At root, the new structures are an attempt to ensure, in the words of one leading ITV broadcaster, that "production is not a slave to the ITV schedule alone."

More prosaically, having an integrated management structure means administrative cost savings and probably more streamlined strategic decision-making too.

There will always be separate management teams to run the franchises, with stand-alone local facilities. The ITC simply would not accept Granada bringing all its production activities to, say, London Television Centre.

But having a dedicated management in charge of production will probably allow United and Granada to secure more commissions, not just from Marcus Plantin at ITV Network Centre but from the BBC's new scheduling and commissioning head honcho, Will Wyatt, who is helping to plan the Beeb's new digital services and its overseas expansion.

It also makes it easier for broadcasters to consider global markets, and may persuade them increasingly to take bigger financial risks in return for bigger domestic and overseas sales.

Carlton has already had some success in branching out. In addition to increasing its share of peak viewing on the main network, the company has won commissions from the Discovery Channel and the BBC's international channel, BBC Prime.

The changes come at a crucial time for the ITV network, which is struggling against a popular (perhaps populist?) BBC1 schedule and continuing, debilitating battles within Network Centre between the big suppliers (notably Granada) and the also-rans - those companies that produce far less programming for the main network than their share of national advertising revenue might suggest. This has been a perennial battle, of course, and has led to the shifting alliances, temporary ceasefires and odd guerrilla tactics that have for too long characterised relations within the "federation" of ITV.

Not surprisingly, the in-fighting has again sparked rumours that poor Marcus Plantin was for the chop. As the network's man, he is always the flashpoint of ITV gripes, everything from the carving-up of the peak-time schedule to the seeming inability of ITV to consistently outgun the public service broadcaster.

Indeed, the rumour in recent weeks was that Plantin was about to decamp for BSkyB, the satellite broadcaster - a move which everyone was quick to deny. (Sky's Sam Chisholm, uncharacteristically, even agreed to be quoted, saying: "That is just wishful thinking on the part of Marcus Plantin.")

All of the squabbling will probably lessen once the long-awaited consolidation of ITV franchises finally kicks off. Carlton should get HTV, Granada will take YTT and Scottish and Grampian are likely to combine. By then, the restructuring pioneered by Carlton, aped by United News & Media, and now being contemplated by Granada, will bear fruit. Britain might just get grown-up media companies - and a truly integrated ITV? - after all.

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