Monty Python hit inspires UKTV’s investment in more original and live content

TELEVISION: After a new Monty Python show (pictured) helped boost business at vintage-TV digital broadcaster UKTV, investing in original live content has become more than a bloody brilliant idea at the British company.

“We plan to invest in more big live events like the Python show,” said UKTV CEO Darren Childs. “The hardest part is originating content; it is expensive and very few people are good at doing it. So the industry needs money and talent and UKTV’s ambition is to lead the way.”

UKTV, Britain’s largest commercial digital platform with 10 niche ad-funded linear entertainment channels, began life 18 years ago as a dumping ground for classics already broadcast elsewhere.

Today, it is popular for its Gold channel, which is home to prime British comedy classics like Blackadder, Only Fools and Horses, Wallace and Gromit (pictured below), and The Royle Family. Gold’s sister channels include Dave, Drama, Watch and Good Food.

But while staying true to its roots of mostly archive programmes from the 1970s to the 1990s, UKTV wants to establish a more contemporary identity.

After acquiring more modern hits already commissioned and aired by other broadcasters, it started reviving favourites that had ended transmission on other networks but retained cult followings.

“One of the tragedies in our business is that great intellectual property gets abandoned,” Childs explained. “UKTV likes knowing if there is a consumer demand for a show so that we don’t have any qualms picking up something that other people have let go.”

Then came commissions of original scripted and non-scripted content that will debut on only UKTV channels.

Noticing that this strategy was boosting its national audience share, UKTV raised the bar in 2014 with the live broadcast of Monty Python Live (mostly): One Down Five to Go, the final ever stage performance by the legendary British comedy troupe, on Gold.

Although its budget for original programming is small compared to its UK rivals like Channel 4 (which happens to handle UKTV’s advertising sales) and ITV, the record audience figures for Monty Python Live have persuaded UKTV to consider investing in more live TV entertainment, Childs said.

Speaking during a media briefing in London with the UK’s Broadcast Press Guild (BPG)**, he admitted it was a challenging ambition for his company, which is jointly owned by the BBC and US-based Scripps Networks Interactive.

Since joining as CEO in 2010, Childs (pictured below) has made it his mission to drive profitability from ad sales and audience growth at the multi-channel operation, which also includes a video-on-demand (VOD) platform called UKTV Play.

He said UKTV has become the fastest growing commercial broadcast group in Britain commanding a weighty 9.4% of the commercial TV audience during the first quarter of this year.

“Our program budget has gone up at least 40% to about £125m (US$191.8m) a year (since he became CEO). This has driven our viewership growth,” he said about UKTV’s bid for a greater share of the national £5bn (US$7.7bn) TV advertising market.

To take the operation to a new level in terms of market share, he said future plans also include the online-only content that will be commissioned from new talent with innovative ideas.

Childs admitted it is going to be tough for the British TV sector as a whole to attract and retain the talent required to remain relevant in the 21st century unless it nurtures a much more diverse workforce.

“This isn’t just about competition from online video, it’s about competition from all digital entertainment and media businesses, including games and social media,” he stated. “There is a plethora of (employment) choice for today’s young talent. It’s not just about losing them to Netflix and Amazon; coders, for example, are in great demand from all types of industries, not just TV. So the biggest threat is losing all our talent to digital unless we change the way TV as entertainment feels.”

UKTV’s contribution to this change, he said, will to boost its apprenticeship schemes in 2016 by increasing the number of trainees from a variety of backgrounds to 3% of the company’s staff of about 300.

He noted that, according to figures published by the UK government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, a hefty 44% of staff employed in the film, TV and music industries were educated at paid-for private schools. This compares to 36% of the UK government’s senior executives (including the Prime Minister), 44% of the London Sunday Times Rich List of affluent individuals, 22% of CEOs at the country’s leading 350 companies, and only 7% of the population in general.

“Those statistics are quite incredible. It is also bad news,” Childs declared. “It isn’t great for our industry if the new entrants we take are based on their parents’ ability to afford expensive education. I don’t want to create content via sweatshop economics. Why is the number so high? Why are we not an inclusive business?”

To this end, UKTV has joined forces with Creative Skillset, a creative industries’ lobbying organisation, to launch an Open Doors event on 18 November welcoming about 40 16 to 24-year-olds who want to learn about working in the TV industry.

**Darren Childs spoke to the BPG during a media briefing on 14 October.