Meridian achieves orderly takeover in harsh climate

'The hills took over on the south,

And southward dreams the sea;

And with the sea-breeze hand in hand

Came innocence and she'

Francis Thompson wrote thus in Daisy and there is a tinge of that innocent quality in Meridian, the company that will at midnight take over the television franchise for the South and South-east.

It has been less dismissive of the efforts of its predecessor than the other new kids on the block. The handover has been orderly. Meridian has bought the TVS studios in Southampton and recruited most of its staff - 270 out of 400 - from the old company.

It is concentrating its programme efforts in children's television, comedy and the countryside. It has opened a new studio in Newbury to improve local news coverage. And its managing director, Roger Laughton, is described by Tracey Ullman in a promotional video as 'that nice man from the BBC'.

If all this sounds too goody- goody to be true . . . well, perhaps it is. The competitive environment of the new ITV, in which the company must fund its pounds 36.5m bid for the franchise over 10 years, may be no place for nice guys.

The innocence may last no longer than Meridian, the First Ten Minutes, the live programme to be transmitted at midnight.

The man behind Meridian is Lord Hollick, whose financial services company MAI did not get where it is today by being nice. Already his stringent financial regime has led to the departure of one executive - Dianne Nelmes, who was to have run current affairs and community programmes, but fled back to Granada after a budget disagreement.

Still, judged by its contribution to the national network, the new broadcaster will get off to an impressive start. It will have a six- part comedy series, Full Stretch, on the network early in the season, written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, creators of Porridge; Michael Palin, one of the company's founders, will star in a one-off comedy with Ms Ullman; and Robbie Coltrane will travel by Cadillac across the US for a four- part documentary. It will also network some children's programmes - as TVS did - but is likely to receive competition in this field from other companies, notably Scottish TV.

Tony Brooks, managing director of TVS, whose bid of pounds 59.5m was rejected by the Independent Television Commission as over- ambitious, believes the auction system was flawed. Next month a much-reduced TVS is likely to be acquired by the US evangelist Pat Robertson's Family Channel.

The staff have already said their goodbyes at a pre-Christmas party and Mr Brooks will leave the studio at 7pm tonight after the last live broadcast of the magazine Coast to Coast, to be transformed into Meridian Tonight.

Meridian will lose pounds 3m to pounds 4m in its first year, according to stockbrokers James Capel and Smith New Court. However, both brokers predict that by 1995 it should make profits of pounds 10m a year.

Simon Albery, executive director of Meridian, says a deal to buy the Southampton studios of TVS for a song has led to savings of about pounds 20m, a third of the original projections, in start-up costs. He says the advertising market is difficult, but sales are satisfactory.

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