Despite soaring revenue in the first half of this year, Carolyn McCall, chief executive of U.K. broadcaster ITV is taking a cautious approach.
“We have a global studios business and so restrictions are very different in every part of the world and some are much, much tighter than others,” McCall said in an earnings call with press on Wednesday, following the half yearly results. “If you look at Australia at the moment, who would have thought they would have gone back into quite a severe lockdown in many states there, you know.” She similarly pointed to Germany and the U.K. as places where precautions were still in place and the situation was constantly changing.
“We know virus has not gone away. The virus is still around. And so how we’re all in different countries managing, this gives rise to quite a lot of uncertainty,” she said. “And you will have reported on the kind of unintended consequences of what has been called the ‘Ping-demic’ where whole sets of people can have to stay at home instead of come to work. Those are all uncertainties that we see, and that we want to remain cautious about until we know.”
One area McCall refused to be drawn was on rumors the broadcaster might be in the market to buy Channel 4. “I’m clearly not going to speculate on anything to do with Channel 4, as I wouldn’t discuss any conversations with the government,” she said. “Suffice to say, [the government] will have spoken to a large number of people in the industry about their views on Channel 4, and they will have encouraged all of those participants in the industry to put into the consultation. So on that, I can definitely say today that we’ve had a conversation or two about that with DCMS [the U.K. Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport], where they explained their rationale, they said there’s this consultation, they would like us to contribute to that, which we would have done anyway because it’s in the PSB [Public Service Broadcasting] ecology, it’s an important part of the PSB market.”
Elsewhere, McCall said that with outdoor activities such as cinemas being affected by the pandemic, “TV has definitely benefited from that,” which has had a knock-on effect on advertising. “The ad demand is across the board for every single category,” McCall said, except for travel for “obvious” reasons.
“I also think advertisers have come back to realizing, some of them, the really huge benefits of what TV can deliver which is this mass reach which is also hugely emotional,” she said. “You can get so much emotional messaging across, you can get tone across, you can get joy across, you can uplift people. But you can also do some very serious impactful stuff.”
Ad revenue has, of course, been helped by the proliferation of live events, most significantly sporting events. “When we had the World Cup, we had a really good tournament,” said McCall. “When we’ve had different other big sporting events we’ve had amazing, amazing numbers. I hope it’s not a sugar rush, I hope it’s something that we just build on and go from strength to strength.”
But McCall pointed out it isn’t just live events but live TV generally that is holding strong. “I mean millions and millions of people watch live TV,” she said. “Contrary sometimes to the coverage that you can see which is all about streaming. Now streaming is important and viewers are changing habits but live TV is incredibly important, and sports is a really important driver of that.” Even “Love Island,” whose ratings have slipped somewhat, “has done really, really well,” she said, when you took into the account that it launched against both Wimbledon and the Euro soccer championship.
Still, with sports being a key driver of audiences, “We know the value of sport to live TV and we will do the best we can to keep live sport on ITV,” she said, pointing to the rugby world cup, soccer world cup, Euros, FA Cup and England qualifier games coming up in the fall.
McCall also spoke at length about ITV Studios, which now has 25 labels of scripted programming in addition to its unscripted work, and produces content for other entities including Sky and Netflix.
“I think if you look at the content market, and we’ve looked at this every which way, but even on the most cautious estimates, you would have said it’s going to continue to grow over the next five years, 3-5%,” said McCall. “And actually because of people taking back their catalogues — so if you’re Disney, you’ve taken everything back, if you’re Warner you’ve taken everything back, you just name it, every single company that produces content has taken all their content back to do their own streaming — which means that streamers always need content, it’s a big beast and they’ve got to feed it.”
“And so even though Netflix will do their own content, you know, content can take two, three, four years to materialize from an idea to screen. It’s a long game. So I think we are in a very strong position to continue to take advantage of the content growth globally, because we now have a global business.”
ITV CFO Chris Kennedy also pointed out that Studios has slightly pivoted its strategy from acquiring companies to investing in production deals.
Asked whether McCall could envision a point where it was more cost effective to entirely produce drama for other entities rather than broadcast it themselves, however, she replied: “I can’t see that, because we know that drama drives audiences, and we know that advertisers, both from a sponsorship/partnership point of view, love drama – the drama package – and also advertisers like ratings.”
As for ITV’s own streaming platform, BritBox, jointly owned with the BBC, McCall was unfazed by the slowdown in subscriptions, though it is up 10% in the U.K. and 18% internationally, pointing out that was the case across the streaming market. “There is a slowdown, generally in the market for subscriptions because people are not spending all their time at home, they don’t have to spend all their time at home anymore. So there is definitely a slowing down but actually our number is bang on,” she said.
She also pointed out that, particularly with the live data available, they are able to keep iterating, for example learning that it is not only “brand new” originals that attract audiences, “it can be repackaged content that you make a big event out of,” she said, such as the Doctor Who Classic.
“’The Beasts Must Die’ did really well, which wasn’t original, but what we discovered when people came in for ‘The Beasts Must Die’ is that they found loads of other dramas like ‘The Beasts Must Die,’ that they wanted to watch and they discovered other contents in BritBox,” she said. “So it’s not always about thinking ‘It’s all about originals.’ Originals come in many shapes and sizes.”
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