TV Industry Future, U.S.-U.K. Relations in Spotlight at Cambridge Conference

Illustration by: Lars Leetaru

The Royal Television Society convention in Cambridge this year explored the state and outlook for the industry.

The future of TV and relationships between U.S. and U.K. sector players were in focus this week at a TV industry convention in Cambridge, England.

The biennial Royal Television Society (RTS) convention this year explored the topic of "Happy Valley or House of Cards? Television in 2020," with panels focusing on changing viewer habits, "Working for the Yankee Dollar. Consolidation and Creativity" and other topics.

David Abraham, CEO of British broadcaster Channel 4, which has been looking for co-productions with U.S. networks, reiterated previous concerns about American acquisitions of U.K. TV production firms and networks, such as Viacom's purchase of Channel 5. "I’m incredibly proud of what this country is capable of doing, and we should really work to preserve what it is that makes us special," he said, highlighting differences between the U.S. and British industries. 

Lauding the "outstanding creativity" in the U.S., he also highlighted that the industry is more profit-focused there. "We do things differently here," he said.

Ever since John Malone's Liberty Global acquired a stake in U.K. broadcaster ITV, some have suggested the company or some other player could eventually buy full ownership of ITV. Abraham suggested that a possible acquisition of ITV by a foreign buyer would have “profound” effects on the broader U.K. sector.

Wayne Garvie, chief creative officer of Sony Pictures Television, which has acquired production outfits, argued that hat ITV will have to make shows that appeal to a U.K. audience if it is to remain successful. After all, local networks and producers must still always "offer programming that works for the audience in that market." He said the suggestion that U.S. companies are looking to buy British companies and transform them into American ones was wrong.

Tim Hincks, president of Endemol Shine Group, spoke of his experience with the deal that combined 21st Century Fox's Shine Group, Endemol and Core Media. He said he was "not convinced" that it matters who owns a company, just how they manage the creative process. We're free to use IP as we wish. We are creating British shows," he said. “If we are going down the road of saying U.S. corporations are crushing creativity, the evidence doesn’t seem to be there.”

During a panel on the likely state of TV in 2020, ITV CEO Adam Crozier said he was still a relative newcomer to the industry and was still at time surprised by its tendency to talk itself and its outlook down. "Television has a great future," he said. "And yes, it has got its challenges." But he emphasized people's continuing demand for great content.

Echoing a theme that has been a big topic in the U.S. entertainment industry, Crozier on Friday also said that TV viewing was "vastly undermeasured," saying that must be remedied.

During another panel on the state and outlook of the industry, Stephen Lambert, CEO of All3Media production firm Studio Lambert, said: "It's harder than ever to have a hit." And he said one challenge for unscripted show producers is that new digital buyers "aren't yet buying non-scripted."

With more on-demand and less live viewing, "live sports has become really exaggerated in its importance," said Susanna Dinnage, executive vp and general manager of Discovery Networks UK/Ireland, about industry trends that are expected to continue in the future.

Will YouTube buy sports rights? "We are not a broadcaster, Stephen Nuttall, senior director of YouTube EMEA, said, adding there were no such plans. "We also don't intend to produce content." 

Benedict Evans, partner at venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, said there would be few changes to how content is produced, but predicted the development of new aggregation models.

Other speakers at the RTS event included Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav, AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan and Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman.