Media: How Thames turned the tide: From failed franchisee to thriving 'indie' producer: there can be life after broadcasting death, as Richard Last witnessed
Wednesday 09 February 1994
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.'
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