'Downton Abbey' Helped ITV Turnaround, CEO Says

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ITV CEO Adam Crozier

Adam Crozier also discussed new drama and women channels, ITV's acquisitions of production firms in the U.S., and the upcoming soccer World Cup.

LONDON – The turnaround of U.K. TV network giant ITV in recent years was helped by hit drama Downton Abbey, among other things, CEO Adam Crozier said here on Wednesday. 

Appearing at the Media Summit, part of the Creative Week series of events organized by publisher MBI, Crozier said that when he joined ITV in 2010, things were "tough." But his team's decision to focus on quality content has driven up both ratings and financials. He said his team also decided that it was best to "own as much of our content as possible so that if it travels around world, we get the benefit." 

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ITV doesn't own Downton Abbey, a show from NBCUniversal International Television Production's Carnival Films unit.

Still, Crozier said that the show's success was important in terms of ratings and staff morale. "The lift that gives anyone at the organization is massive," he said. "That sort of started the ball rolling."

He described his first year and a half running ITV as challenging, saying it often felt like his team made "two steps forward, three steps back." Every time something went well, management uncovered some other "disaster," he said.

While ITV has continued to cut costs, Crozier said the bigger focus has been on streamlining processes and optimizing operations rather then firing staff. ITV actually has a bigger staff now, and about half its workforce didn't work at the company in 2010, he said.

He touted a slew of acquisitions of production firms, especially in the U.S., as a way to grow content revenue, which has made ITV less reliant on advertising revenue. And the deals have propelled ITV into a prominent position in the U.S. "We went from nowhere to being the biggest indie" in the U.S., he said. The company's TV production firms had 12 shows on the air in the U.S. a few years ago, and they now have 150, Crozier said. 

He was also bullish on other new revenue opportunities, including from new channels. He cited recently announced ITVBe, which targets young female viewers with lifestyle and reality programming, and ITV Encore, a drama network that will launch on pay TV giant BSkyB next week, as key opportunities.

ITVBe will also make room on ITV 2 and allow it to focus more on young adults and comedy fans, he said.

Crozier also said ITV is looking at offering some dramas for ITV Encore with a separate budget. That would allow it to make dramas with expected smaller audiences, he said, highlighting that the flagship ITV channel sees an audience of 5 million as a slight disappointment. But he said that such hit dramas as Game of Thrones drew 1 million to 1.5 million viewers in the U.K.

ITV Encore will launch with episodes of Downton Abbey, Broadchurch and one-off dramas such as Mrs Biggs with Sheridan Smith and Lucan with Rory Kinnear.

ITV recently said that it had a somewhat weak start to the year, with Crozier on Wednesday explaining that audiences have to some degree moved from commercial broadcasters to U.K. public broadcaster BBC. But ITV's ratings have started improving and will improve further with the upcoming soccer World Cup, he said.

He also said that ITV's status as a British public service broadcaster (PSB) continues to be a good thing for the company. "Being a PSB is a very good thing," Crozier said. "We absolutely believe in news" and other programming with public service values. 

Email: Georg.Szalai@THR.com
Twitter: @georgszalai