From the Murdoch-controlled BSkyB to John Malone’s Liberty Global buying Virgin Media and a stake in ITV, US media moguls are increasingly becoming key players in the UK TV market.
The US media group Viacom is buying Channel 5 and many multichannel TV stations are owned by US groups. The UK’s biggest TV production company, All3Media, was recently bought by Discovery and Liberty Global, while US tech giants such as Apple and Google are tightening their grip on our viewing.
But is the Americanisation of British TV to be welcomed or not? The Channel 4 chief executive, David Abraham, thinks it could have detrimental effects on UK broadcasting and used his MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh TV festival to warn about the negative consequences of a US takeover. He suggested these US groups are likely to consider their financial position first and creativity second.
The result could be less focus on creative risk-taking as companies concentrate on making hit programmes that can be exported around the world, leading to bland, predictable content.
Abraham is calling for a radical shake-up of the UK’s pay-TV ecosystem to protect the creativity of public service broadcasting. At present, free-to-air broadcasters have to stump up for the pay-TV giants to screen their programmes. Abraham wants the pay-TV providers to pay public service broadcasters to carry their channels.
A Department for Culture, Media & Sport report in 2012 concluded that such a system could provide £200 million for public service broadcasters. Abraham says that Channel 4’s share would be invested directly into programme-making.
The US-owned companies reject these calls and argue that they are a positive influence on UK TV, investing to increase employment and boost production budgets. And observers point out that some of the most innovative and creative TV of recent years has emanated from the US, from Breaking Bad and True Detective to Game Of Thrones. Channel 4 itself has built its name with US imports. So is the US influence really so malign?
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