MEDIA: HEADLINER; The BBC veteran changes his spots to chase new business

Roger Laughton lets Claire Beale in on the plans for his renamed empire, UBE

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