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TV industry weighs up growing US presence

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13 October 2015

America looms large in the mindset of British TV executives. This was clearly illustrated in the speaker line-ups at this year’s Edinburgh TV Festival and RTS Cambridge Convention, where senior figures from Discovery, Viacom, AMC, ABC, Showtime, HBO, NBC and Amazon were given platforms.

Their invitations reflect the growing presence of US companies in the UK TV market, through ownership of broadcasters like Channel 5 and Sky as well as major production groups like All3Media, Endemol Shine, Warner Bros, NBC Universal and Sony.

The reaction to this growing US presence has varied from the welcoming to the hostile. Many have looked for investment from US companies to grow their companies and boost budgets for their programmes, or have themselves sought to access to the lucrative North American market.

Endemol Shine’s Tim Hincks argued at Cambridge that US investment had given his company the financial freedom to take more creative risks in the UK: “The scale we get from consolidation allows and also helps foster risk taking for British creators.” NBC Universal’s Michael Edelstein said his company could “add tremendous value” to its UK produced shows, citing the casting of Rob Lowe in Sky1 show You, Me and The Apocalypse (pictured above).

However, many expressed concern. Notably, C4 and the BBC sought to portray themselves as some of the last bastions of British-ownership – and worthy of special protection as a result.

“The Britishness of British broadcasting matters. It isn’t isolationist or backward looking to say that,” argued BBC director general Tony Hall in keynote speech at Cambridge. He worried that changes to the UK’s distinct broadcasting ecology could lead to the decline in television production made in Britain.

C4 chief executive David Abraham, meanwhile, said that the IP and profits of many successful British production companies “are now held in New York.” He took particular issue with Discovery boss David Zaslav’s description of its UK production assets as “an IP farm”.

In an echo of his MacTaggart lecture of 2014, Abraham said: “The risk taking appetite that is built into the public service system has fuelled the creative economy and is different to how things work in America.”

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