Media: How Thames turned the tide: From failed franchisee to thriving 'indie' producer: there can be life after broadcasting death, as Richard Last witnessed

Last week, 42 per cent of all programme hours transmitted on the ITV network in weekday peak time (7pm to 10pm, Monday to Thursday) came from a single production company: Thames Television. The pattern is set to continue well into next month. For any one of the 16 licensed broadcasters, it would be a good record. For a company that lost its franchise on December 31 1992, it is extraordinary.

Fourteen months into unlicensed existence, Thames is proving that there can be life after broadcasting death. The Teddington-based company supplies three half-hour episodes per week of The Bill, on a three-year contract running to 1996, and what is promised to be positively the last series of Minder. This Is Your Life is about to make a profitable transfer to the BBC. The series Scotland Yard has reinforced the Thames reputation for hard-hitting documentary, and Law and Disorder, starring Penelope Keith, has just opened with a 9 million rating.

UK Gold, beamed from a clutch of dishes on the roof at Teddington, has been joined by a second satellite channel, aimed at female audiences - UK Living. The four Thames- side studios hum with the activities of smaller independents which rent space from the largest of the tribe. And Thames's own Wish You Were Here and Strike It Lucky look as if they will run for ever.

When Thames failed to retain its franchise in the ITV auction (the Independent Television Commission spent two days agonising over its most difficult decision) and was replaced by Carlton, the chief executive, Richard Dunn, made two resolutions. One was never to carp about the loss. The other was to optimise every particle of his company's continuing assets until he had forged an independent contender fit for survival in the Nineties. 'Practically everyone in the business was telling me: without a licence to broadcast, you're dead,' he recalls. 'Well, they're not saying it now.'

In April Pearson, the media group that carried out a friendly takeover of Thames last summer, will publish its annual results. They will show a turnover for Thames of more than pounds 100m and profits comfortably over pounds 10m. Compared with its former revenue as a broadcaster of pounds 300m it sounds like small beer. Compared with the next biggest independent companies (turnovers of pounds 15m to pounds 20m), it is huge.

Thames's post-broadcasting career has been built on Mr Dunn's determination to keep the company in being, and on two natural advantages: first, its record as a provider of middlebrow quality television, with series such as The Bill, Minder and Rumpole; and second, the freehold ownership of Teddington Studios, a riverside complex overlooking the lock where tidal and freshwater Thames meet.

Here, in studios where the former largest ITV company once made prestige drama series such as Edward and Mrs Simpson, Select TV makes Birds of a Feather for the BBC and Planet 24 concocts The Word for Channel 4. This Is Your Life goes out from the largest of the four available studios, Kilroy from the smallest.

About 90 per cent of studio use is leased to other independents. Thames's own production units must fit in where they can. Mr Dunn has recently moved out of his executive suite to make room for the writers Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran. 'Rent-paying clients take priority. We move around as required,' says Mr Dunn.

Nobody pretends that the transformation has been achieved without pain. The biggest trauma came with the handing out of redundancy notices to nine-tenths of the 1,600-strong workforce. The company parted with high-profile executives such as David Elstein (gone to BSkyB), Roger (Death on the Rock) Bolton, Lloyd Shirley and Jonathan Shier.

Yet a surprising number have found places in the new set-up: the Thames veteran Mike Phillips in charge of programme production and distribution; John Howard Davies still in charge of comedy; and John Hambley still running Euston Films. Former Thames technicians, now freelances, are regularly called in to staff the studios.

Much of Thames's income is based on shrewd investment, for instance in the Astra satellites (9.6 per cent) and UK Gold (20 per cent), and vigorous exploitation of its vast 'library', which includes international warhorses such as the Benny Hill shows and The World At War.

But the overriding clout comes from size and reputation. Where other independent companies live from contract to contract, Thames has been able to secure long-term deals, notably with ITV for The Bill and the BBC for This Is Your Life across three years. The BBC deal alone is worth nearly pounds 20m. 'They know we can deliver proven technical and production quality, and they know we are not going to go bankrupt - which is not always the case with some smaller indies,' says Mr Dunn. This confidence means that Thames can afford to develop pilot ideas without cast- iron guarantees from an ultimate buyer. Currently it is engaged in talks with the BBC for a 'classic' serial - the kind it could once have offered ITV.

Not even Michael Green of Carlton-Central or the BBC's director- general, John Birt, could match Thames's most picturesque asset, a 98ft motor launch called Sir Thomas More. Anchored next to the studio car park (on the tidal side of the lock) it provides a unique environment for entertaining clients. As we lunched in the spacious wheelhouse, lapped by a fiercely rushing river, Mr Dunn admitted: 'It's a bit of a luxury. Strictly speaking, we ought to sell it. But we've had to cut off enough of the past already. Thomas More lost his head for his beliefs. We're planning to keep ours.'

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

Guru Careers: Senior Account Manager / SAM

£30 - 35k: Guru Careers: A Senior Account Manager / SAM is needed to join the ...

Ashdown Group: Digital Marketing Manager (EMEA) - City, London

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Digital Marketing Manager...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?