Roger Laughton lets Claire Beale in on the plans for his renamed empire,
Maybe it’s the pent-up frustration of 25 years at the BBC, but Roger
Laughton is one hungry commercial animal.
As the executive director of United Broadcasting and Entertainment,
Laughton presides over a clutch of TV assets guaranteed to get your
average City analyst slavering. But Laughton’s always got his eye on the
next big thing, and last week he spruced up his troops and introduced a
new livery ready for the next round in the UK TV battle.
The old MAI Media name has been dumped in favour of UBE, which
incorporates Meridian and Anglia Television; the sales house, TSMS;
interests in Channel 5; cable and satellite expansion plans; worldwide
programme distribution; new-media development; and even theme parks.
Laughton says that the new name is designed to reflect better the
company’s parentage. MAI merged with United News and Media, publisher of
the Express newspapers, earlier this year. The changes are also intended to streamline the management board and ensure that the core team is
focused on how best to operate within the ITV structure.
Laughton - consumately charming, corporately coy - is clear that ITV is
at the top of UBE’s agenda. Yet he demurs from discussing which other
ITV companies might be on his shopping list, saying only: ‘ITV is a core
part of our business and it is clearly in our interests to ensure that
we get full value from our investment in ITV.’ The rest, he says, is for
me to speculate on.
But how solid is the ITV investment at a time when advertisers and
agencies are thumping tables about falling audiences and rising prices?
Laughton admits that ITV’s had a rocky time of late: ‘There has been a
BBC backlash which has hit our audiences.’ So ITV’s been too slow in
responding? ‘We’ve reacted quicker and more effectively than a federal
system would,’ Laughton insists.
‘Collectively we’re putting more money into ITV programming, and at a
time when we’re sure there’s more money coming in. The problem is how
well we use that money to create the best schedule,’ he explains.
Competition, he says, focuses you on the real goal - a strong ITV:
‘There is real competition now for revenue and programmes and ITV must
retain its key strengths - its regional flavour and its commitment to
original programming.’ Laughton himself has clocked up programming
credits which include head of network features for the BBC, head of
daytime programmes (this is the guy who brought you Neighbours) and
director of co-productions at BBC Enterprises.
Now, about that competition. While ITV is collectively starting to
perspire about the impending launch of Channel 5, UBE is sitting pretty
with just under 30 per cent of the new channel. And Channel 5 is, as
Laughton points out, ‘a serious threat to ITV’.
Is this a difficult conflict for Laughton and UBE to square? ‘Not at
all. Our interest in Channel 5 is purely as an investment, and I don’t
think that my ITV colleagues would be happy for me to remain as head of
the ITV board if they were worried about a conflict of interest. Anyway,
other ITV companies have outside interests, such as Granada’s in BSkyB.’
And UBE’s TV expansion won’t stop at Channel 5. The company has put
money behind the launch of Rapture, a cable channel aimed at 12- to 20-
year-olds. Other projects are in the pipeline, though Laughton insists
that there are no plans for a sports channel, something which was widely
rumoured when MAI bid for the Premier League rights earlier this year.
Right now, though, Laughton is getting particularly excited about
opportunities closer to home: exploring how UBE can work with its sister
newspaper division. Here, says Laughton, there is enormous potential to
exploit any areas where text and pictures come together.
According to Laughton, there will be enormous benefits for advertisers
and agencies: ‘One of the great advantages of the merger between MAI and
United is that it focused the management on the future. There are real
opportunities to develop services for advertisers which will work in
more than one media and enhance the ways in which we can all work
together. We must continue our development into areas where we can sell
add-on benefits to advertisers and offer them better value.’
Not bad for a BBC veteran.
The Laughton file
1969 BBC Nationwide, producer-director
1977 BBC Manchester, editor, features
1981 BBC Television, head of network features
1988 BBC Enterprises, director, co-productions
1990 MAI Broadcasting, director
1991 Meridian Television, chief executive
1996 United Broadcasting and Entertainment, executive director