United News & Media, which owns shares in U.K. networks ITV and Channel 5, is poised to take a controlling stake in U.K.-based distributor ITEL. Currently UN&M owns ITEL 50/50 with Time Warner’s HBO.
In a separate development, ITEL children’s programming head Oliver Ellis is now head of programming following former deputy chief executive/programming head Paul Sowerbutts’ exit to a post as managing director of United Wildlife this month. Also, ITEL has poached Cascade international director Ian Jones to be its new director of sales.
UN&M’s move follows HBO’s decision to sell its stake in ITEL and concentrate resources on funding North American-originated shows. UN&M’s eagerness to take control of ITEL reflects an ambition to grow its business internationally. The split is amicable, with HBO planning to keep some shows in the ITEL catalog.
ITEL chief executive Andrew Macbean says the trigger for the shake-up ‘was a proposed five-year business plan that underlined our ambition to invest more in European programming. That didn’t suit HBO. But United recognizes that if it controls ITEL, it will be able to greenlight investments more quichly and have more control over its international strategy.’
Macbean does not expect the loss of HBO as a shareholder to impact adversely on ITEL’s business in the U.S. ‘We have strong and independent links with the likes of A&E, PBS and Discovery, which I expect to continue,’ he says. Preschool shows Animal Shelf (Cosgrove Hall) and 64 Zoo Lane (Millimages) are running on Fox Family U.S. as part of Itsy-Bitsy Time. After talks at MIPCOM, ITEL is also expecting to clinch a deal for United’s preschool show Dog & Duck. Having seen a mere five pilot episodes of this United Production preschool series, ITV’s Nigel Pickard commissioned an additional 130 eps, bringing the total to 195 x 10 minutes.
Following United’s takeover, ITEL’s emphasis on kids, drama and factual is not likely to change. But Macbean expects that ITEL will be more closely integrated within the United family and will get involved earlier in financing negotiations. Judging by United’s previous rebranding exercises, it would not be out of character for the distributor to be renamed United International shortly after acquisition.
Macbean’s five-year business plan also expressed a desire to concentrate on ‘fewer big properties, rather than lots of one-offs. If we are going to grow this business from £40 million to £60-£65 million a year, then we need a shift in emphasis.’ This is likely to mean greater focus on the multimedia exploitation of properties like Animal Shelf, Dog & Duck and the upcoming Porter & Daughter.
Macbean has also started introducing a new tier of senior management at ITEL, such as fellow Swansea native Ian Jones from Scottish Television Enterprises’ Cascade. The move will free up Macbean to spend more time working on preproduction investment strategy with United and animation studio Cosgrove Hall-in which ITEL has a 75% controlling stake. Under Macbean, CH has diversified out of its traditional strength in model animation and is currently working on eight series for next year. It has also created character designs that are being used as mascots for the U.K.’s Millennium Dome.
Macbean is also interviewing for a heavyweight head of licensing to beef up the company’s in-house team. He expects the new licensing chief to oversee a bigger in-house resource then its predecessor Rachel Bark, who recently left ITEL to join Channel 4 International.
ITEL has invested heavily in kids shows in recent years-notably Animal Shelf. As part of his new licensing drive, Macbean will also look at ways of turning animation studio Cosgrove Hall into a recognizable retail brand. ‘There are very few classic British children’s brands, but I do believe there is room to build consumer awareness of the Cosgrove Hall name.’ There are also advanced plans for a Cosgrove Hall Web site.
For Cascade, the loss of Jones is a severe blow, coming so soon after the departure of another senior executive, Teleri Roberts, to Southern Star. Both Jones and Roberts were brought in from S4C International 18 months ago to build Scottish Television Enterprises’ presence on the international stage.