UKTV: The new Gold rush

UKTV have relied on the BBC's vault of programmes to make its mark in the crowded TV schedules. Now it is starting to produce a host of shows of its own presented by star talent. Raymond Snoddy reports

Tonight UKTV History will launch a new series dedicated to the notion that some of us at least have ancestors who were famous. Presented by Bill Oddie, My Famous Family will talk to people who are more than a little surprised to find out that they are related to the likes of Queen Victoria the Duke of Wellington and Florence Nightingale.

Next month, another form of fame will be explored by Ricky Tomlinson in The Shirts of 66 on UKTV Gold. The actor and football fan will track down the shirts that the England team wore in the 1966 World Cup final - and, in some cases, return them to their original owners. The series will be part of about 200 hours of World Cup-related material to be shown on UKTV channels in June - including coverage of all 64 games in the finals through a sub-licensing deal with the BBC and ITV.

Such programmes are hardly likely to win Baftas, but they represent a significant change of direction for UKTV, the joint venture between BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC, and Flextech, the cable industry's cable company. "UKTV has made a very successful business out of exploiting the BBC programme library, but we wanted to ensure we could diversify our programme sources and complement our BBC programming with a growing amount of original programming," said John Keeling, UKTV's chief operating officer.

The company has had to change course because of changes to BBC programme commissioning and growing competition from free-to-air digital channels on Freeview, including those from the BBC. The BBC has ditched many of the lifestyle and reality shows that have been important commercially for UKTV in the past.

New series will include Fly to Buy, a guide to buying property abroad from RDF, the makers of Wife Swap. The broadcaster has also built audiences by bringing in big names such as Terry Wogan, David Attenborough and Danny Baker to update archive programmes. In Wogan Now and Then, old Wogan shows are mixed with new material. "It's just a bull's eye so far as we are concerned. The first series got five million viewers in total," says Keeling. In the Attenborough series the likes of Jonathan Ross and Michael Palin have chosen favourite moments from Sir David's nature series. Danny Baker's Comedy Showdown looks at classic British comedy. "It's all about reappraising the archive," explains Keeling.

But although UKTV has had to cope with changing BBC-commissioning fashions, the main reason that UKTV effectively had to reinvent itself is the huge increase in competition. Basic pay-television channels, such as those run by UKTV, are being squeezed by the terrestrial broadcasters, particularly ITV and Channel 4, who have moved enthusiastically into advertising-supported digital channels on Freeview. Their behaviour angers Dick Emery, the UKTV chief executive who has run the company since the joint venture was set up eight years ago. He describes their behaviour as "a pain in the arse". The former ITV strategy director denounces his old colleagues for what he sees as their attempt to "grab territory regardless of profitability". But he reserves his special ire for Channel 4 for moving E4, More4 and FilmFour from pay to free-to-air. "I find it extraordinary that they (Channel 4) can do it with public money," says Emery. "When you are facing competition from public money being spent on American imports to hammer our position its pretty galling."

The impact has been considerable. In January alone UKTV believes Channel 4's commercial impacts - the number of eyeballs watching each ad - on its digital channels rose by 104 per cent. "If advertising is going to slow down, and it is slowing down, and PVRs (personal video recorders) are going to accelerate, then how can you have a strategy which is entirely dependent on advertising funding? It seems to me to be a short-term tactic to drive others out of the market," says Emery.

The continuing rise of Freeview, now in almost seven million homes, and the impact of digital channels launched by terrestrial broadcasters means that the audience share of pay-TV channels faces decline. And UKTV, has always positioned itself as a "basic pay" broadcaster.

Last year the UK's second-largest non-terrestrial broadcaster after BSkyB decided to fight back by "refreshing" everything it does. Over Christmas its collective share of viewing in digital homes averaged 5.04 per cent - greater than the audience share of Five - and so far this year commercial impacts are up by 20 per cent. Sport is likely to play a growing role in the mix. Earlier this year the broadcaster got good results by showing the Six Nations rugby highlights on UKTV G2. The channel should get a further boost from the World Cup coverage.

There has also been a number of small breakthroughs. When the hours of UKTV Drama were extended to cover daytime programming, evening ratings doubled.

Emery predicts that the digital land-grab by advertising funded channels will inevitably end in tears. "What you will start to get is lowest-common-dominator television across these channels."