MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON; BBC AND CHANNEL 5 MOVIE DEAL: Is C5 really sleeping with the enemy or is it just business?

Alasdair Reid looks at the unlikely bidding partners for the Fox films package

Alasdair Reid looks at the unlikely bidding partners for the Fox films

package



Tracing the labyrinth of deals and relationships between media owners is

about as easy as unravelling the late Robert Maxwell’s financial

affairs.



And it’s getting more complicated. Last week saw a classic of its kind,

with the BBC joining forces with Channel 5 to buy a package of movies

from the Fox film studios (Campaign, 29 November). The dollars 40

million deal covers 68 films, including Independence Day, Speed, Mrs

Doubtfire and Braveheart. Of those, 37 films will be exclusive to

Channel 5, 22 will be exclusive to the BBC. Of the remaining nine, five

will get first run on Channel 5 and swap to BBC for the second showing,

and the other four will migrate in the opposite direction.



The Fox studio, remember, is owned by Rupert Murdoch. The BBC has a

burgeoning relationship with Flextech, which is owned by the cable

giant, TCI, which in turn has plans to take on Murdoch in the multi-

channel TV business. Channel 5 has always maintained that it was going

to expand the total commercial audience by taking more viewers from the

BBC than from ITV and Channel 4. So what is it doing in bed with the

enemy?



You might as well ask why the BBC is doing so much to promote the long-

term value of two of Murdoch’s biggest TV properties - the Simpsons and

the X-Files. Or why Granada makes programmes for Sky and retunes

people’s videos on behalf of Channel 5.



Whatever happened to all those theories about the leverage that could be

gained from cross-media ownership? This might sound ludicrously simple,

but shouldn’t Murdoch be running Fox films on Sky 1 (after they’ve run

first on Sky Movies, naturally), thus boosting his own, non-premium

channels and depriving the rest of the TV market of feature films?



Maybe that will happen eventually, Paul Parashar, the broadcast director

of New PHD, argues. ‘It will be a different proposition in a few years’

time when Sky 1 is available in more homes,’ he says. ‘However,

Murdoch’s priority now must be to realise the highest value possible for

his Fox films.



‘I think we’ll increasingly see this type of deal. When there are

hundreds of channels, only a limited number will be able to get hold of

landmark programming such as new movies. The competition will get

tougher and the way to win the bidding war will be for people to join

forces for mutual benefit.’



Will Saunders, the broadcast director of WCRS, agrees. ‘Programming is

expensive and collaborative deals often work,’ he maintains. ‘I think

this deal is especially good for Channel 5. It is most likely to take

audience from ITV, but even if it takes most from the BBC it will still

be appealing to advertisers. The only worry is whether films are going

to keep their audience pulling value. The terrestrial premiere of

Groundhog Day a few weeks back attracted only a 9 rating.’



Russell Boyman, the managing partner, broadcast, of Mediapolis, believes

that Channel 5 talk about taking on the BBC is a smokescreen. ‘They

aren’t rivals at all,’ he states. ‘It’s clear that Channel 5 is going to

be a younger ITV. There are certainly worse things it could be - but ITV

is where its audience will come from. As for Murdoch, I think he’ll be

happy to trade with anyone who isn’t ITV.’



Of course, there’s always the possibility that the reality is slightly

less Machiavellian. Cock-up is often a better bet than conspiracy,

especially when it comes to certain sectors of the UK’s commercial

broadcasting industry. There is a rumour that ITV actually had first

option to come in on this deal.



‘Maybe not quite the first,’ a Channel 5 source reveals. ‘We need films.

To get films we need a bidding partner. We asked Channel 4 and then we

asked ITV. They refused. The BBC said yes. It’s as simple as that.’



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