U.K.'s Channel 5 Committed to U.S. Dramas, Owner Says

Press Association (PA)
Richard Desmond

UPDATED: Media mogul Richard Desmond also lauds Rupert Murdoch and says Britain's public service broadcasters should be allowed to charge pay TV operators carriage fees.

CAMBRIDGE, England – Richard Desmond, the owner of Britain's Channel 5, on Thursday said the broadcaster remains committed to acquiring and showcasing U.S. drama series.

"U.S. drama has a very important place on Channel 5," the chairman of TV and publishing conglomerate Northern & Shell said here at the Royal Television Society Cambridge Convention. "That is why I go the extra mile to be at MIP or the LA Screenings. And that is why I am on first-name terms with so many of the studio executives in this room."

Among Channel 5's recent U.S. show acquisitions are the likes of Under the Dome, Dallas, The Bible and Betrayal. "We really get behind U.S. shows," Desmond touted his network's approach.

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"Our focus is on quality television," the media mogul said. He explained that addictive "populist" shows that people can't turn off are the focus for new channel boss Ben Frow. He also expressed a commitment to news and children's programming.

"But [Frow] tells me that he doesn't want formulas or gimmicks," Desmond added. "And that he won't be chasing ratings with television that is cruel and predictable. Ben's vision of Channel 5 is about building our own talent, telling great stories and being populist and proud of it."

Desmond also got a dig in against pay TV giant BSkyB — in which Rupert Murdoch's 21st Century Fox owns a 39 percent stake — particularly its Sky Atlantic network, which features such high-end U.S. dramas as HBO series Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire.

"Channel 5 really gets behind U.S. acquisitions, and we support them across our whole portfolio," he said. "We don't perform Sky Atlantic-style magic on them — and make the audience disappear."

Asked why he believes his company can make Channel 5 work when former owner Bertelsmann's RTL Group, Europe's largest broadcaster, couldn't, Desmond said it is all about getting the best shows and boosting ratings and advertising revenue.

How does he feel the network is doing now? "The programs are sharper," he said, also citing cross-promotions from his firm's newspapers as helping to drive viewership.

Desmond in 2012 paid $160 million for Channel 5, which has also aired such shows as CSI and Law & Order. 

"I passed the bank draft around the table in our weekly management meeting," he recalled Thursday. "And I asked each person if they thought we should do the deal, or if we should put the money back in the bank — sounds like a good idea for a game show!" He added: "It was a big moral and financial responsibility, because if it went wrong, we'd all be living under a park bench!"

Desmond on Thursday also lauded 21st Century Fox and News Corp chairman Murdoch, citing his creation of BSkyB, which is now a pay TV giant, in the U.K. "He has built the biggest success story in the history of television," Desmond said. "And he did it without a penny of public money. This industry would be much smaller if it weren't for his determination — and his refusal to quit." Quipped Desmond: "True to himself, he is still refusing to quit."

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Desmond on Thursday also got a dig in at the BBC, which has been embroiled in a debate about excessive severance payments. "I would love to be able to make people who leave my business into multimillionaires as a goodbye present," he said.

Desmond also said that Britain's public service broadcasters, including the BBC, ITV and Channel 5, should be able to charge pay TV operators carriage fees similar to the retransmission fees U.S. broadcasters have been paid in recent years.

"Public service broadcasters should be able to charge pay TV platforms for offering the U.K.'s most-popular channels," he said.

U.S. broadcast networks have in recent years started receiving such fees from cable and satellite TV operators, giving them a new revenue stream that mirrors the carriage fees cable networks receive.

However, in the U.K., business models have been different. BSkyB charges the BBC and other public service broadcasters -- ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 -- for offering their channels, citing the cost involved. The BBC, for example, is estimated to pay about $8 million (£5 million) per year to BSkyB. Other PSBs combined are thought to pay about the same amount.

A recent government report argued that public service broadcasters should be protected by law from paying pay TV giant BSkyB fees to get carried on its platform.

Meanwhile, TV network bosses have said they are looking for payments of their own.

"This free ride needs to stop," John Tate, director of policy and strategy at the BBC, recently said. He also signaled the BBC could itself start charging BSkyB retransmission consent fees.

"We would in the future expect to get retransmission fees," echoed ITV CEO Adam Crozier on a recent earnings conference call.

Desmond on Thursday also highlighted that longtime regulation allows non-public-service broadcasters to air more minutes of advertising per hour. The limits on PSBs "are far too restrictive," Desmond said. "We want a level playing field for all channels."

He concluded: "I am fine with regulation where it is fair and flexible."

E-mail: Georg.Szalai@THR.com
Twitter: @georgszalai