Media: We won the franchise. What next?: Meridian is one of the new companies to emerge in the changed world of commercial TV. Michael Leapman looks at its plans

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The Independent Online
THE DAY interest rates went up, then up, then down, was a perverse time to be launching anything, let alone a television station whose prosperity depends on a healthy economy. Yet that evening Roger Laughton, Michael Palin and their colleagues at Meridian, the franchise-holder-in-waiting for ITV's South and South-east region, defied all the omens to deliver a remorselessly upbeat pitch to more than 100 advertising agents.

But then Mr Laughton, a former BBC executive who is now Meridian's managing director, does not believe in omens. If he did, he would not be working from a Portakabin office hard by the Southampton riverside studio of TVS, the company that Meridian is replacing.

Eleven years ago TVS executives sat in the same Portakabin as they waited to take over the network's wealthiest region from Southern TV. Those optimistic days were to fade. When the franchise came up for renewal TVS, deemed by the Independent Television Commission to have overbid, became the only one of the large regional contractors to be thrown out after a single term.

The South's high proportion of well-heeled commuters - the people advertisers love - ensures that the region gains 11 per cent of ITV revenue with only 9 per cent of the audience. However, this has clearly not guaranteed tenure for previous franchise-holders. Mr Laughton has dubbed it 'the Bermuda Triangle of ITV', and if the jinxed Portakabin and the dismal economy were not enough to contend with, he is in the throes of creating a new kind of station.

The 'publisher-contractor model' was a slick piece of tele- speak much tossed around in the run-up to the franchise awards last year. His job is to discover how it can be put into practice.

Channel 4 has been a publisher-contractor since it began in 1982, buying nearly all its programmes from outside producers. But Meridian and Carlton - the new weekday company for the London area - have to make it work at a national and regional level, while at the same time fitting into the ITV system, in which most of their partners are traditional publisher-producers.

That system is itself undergoing fundamental change, under pressure from the Government and, more significantly, from its first real exposure to competition for revenue. BSkyB is growing faster than ITV executives expected, and Channel 4 starts to sell its own advertising next year instead of the ITV companies doing it for them.

Gone are the days when ITV was a cosy cartel, with the five main regional contractors - Thames, Granada, London Weekend, Yorkshire and Central - guaranteed places for their programmes. Now a central scheduler - to be appointed in a few weeks' time - will choose network programmes from any source.

The franchise auction was widely publicised, and the victors were assumed to have won an automatic passport to limitless profits. Yet that was the easy bit. 'It's going to be a less comfortable existence,' says Mr Laughton. 'It's a federation going through change, where nearly all the key players recognise that some sovereignty will have to be given up.

'The kind of production businesses we've had in the past - sole supplier into a network the broadcasters own - are no longer possible. I predict that no so- called producer-contractors (for example Granada, which makes Coronation Street at its Manchester studio) will survive as such in five years' time. When we prepared our bid, we realised we couldn't do a business plan for the supply of programmes because you have no guarantees.'

It is mainly to drive home this message that Meridian - largely owned by Lord Hollick's financial services company MAI - is organising 'induction sessions' for its staff. On a Saturday morning earlier this month, about 20 of them gathered in the swish Botley Park Hotel and Country Club near Southampton to be steeped in the corporate culture. Many were moving across from TVS - Meridian promised to take at least 150, and the final figure is likely to be about 200, roughly half the new company's total staff.

Their questions showed how hard it is for people from old-style stations to get the hang of how things are going to work in the new ones. Keith Clement, director of regional development, had to explain more than once that the only programmes Meridian was actually going to make were local news and current affairs.

For its network presence, he said, it would commission from independents the kind of programmes it thought would appeal to its distinctive audience but that are lacking in the present ITV schedules: high-class comedy, arts, children's programmes and drama. But, as Mr Clement pointed out: 'If we didn't get a programme on the network, we'd still stay in business.'

The company is already sure of making a splash for the network in its first six months with Full Stretch, a prime-time comedy series of six hour-long parts about a limousine company by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, creators of Porridge and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. This comes from the production company SelecTV, which owns 15 per cent of Meridian. From the same source will come a one-off satire on the class system called A Class Act, starring Tracey Ullman and Michael Palin.

In drama, Meridian has commissioned a two-hour adaptation of Mary Wesley's Harnessing Peacocks, with the veteran Sir John Mills and a young discovery in Serena Scott Thomas, and the network has accepted the four-part Coltrane by Cadillac, in which Robbie Coltrane travels by car across the United States. Brighton Pier is an arts programme made for the region by Antelope, the prolific independent production house whose chief executive, Mick Csaky, is Meridian's head of arts. Antelope plans network arts programmes to gain territory previously dominated by London Weekend's South Bank Show.

All these items were in the plans Meridian put to the ITC when it made its bid. A few ideas have not survived, notably a follow-up to Great Railway Journeys of the World, the BBC series that Mr Laughton produced. 'The BBC has decided to do another series itself,' he says ruefully. 'One of the ironies of the franchise round is that your programme plans are shared with every other broadcaster.'

The most expensive proposal in the submission was to carve a third sub-region out of the station's rambling territory, already divided into east and west, with separate news operations based in Maidstone and Southampton. The new sub-region covers the Thames Valley and north Hampshire from a base at Newbury, where a pounds 3m studio was opened last week.

This should increase audiences for ITV in that prosperous area, which traditionally prefers the BBC. Mary McAnally, controller of regional programmes, says: 'Playing the regional card is going to be more important to ITV as audiences fragment.' She is initiating 'social action programmes', with teams of community liaison officers in the three sub-regions.

How much ice will all this cut with the advertisers on whom Meridian depends? Jonathan Howlett, the sales director, who comes from TVS, says: 'Meridian is inheriting a strong business position. The new way of commissioning programmes means we are more likely to have a schedule that suits the South.'

Cut to last week's pitch for advertisers. Michael Palin introduces a video of Tracey Ullman conducting a cod phone call with him. She makes gentle fun of Mr Palin, Lord Hollick and Mr Laughton, 'that nice man from the BBC'.

Few would challenge that description, but those with long memories may reflect that nice men from the BBC do not always prosper in the often nasty world of ITV politics: Donald Baverstock (Yorkshire) and Michael Peacock (London Weekend) are two who come to mind. Fortunately for Roger Laughton, he does not believe in omens.

(Photograph omitted)

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