United News & Media, which owns stakes 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.
The move follows HBO’s decision to sell its stake in ITEL and concentrate more 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 described as amicable – with HBO planning to keep its documentary portfolio in the ITEL catalog.
ITEL chief executive Andrew Macbean says the trigger for the shake-up ‘was a proposed five-year business plan which underlined our ambition to invest more in European programming. That didn’t suit HBO. [However,] United recognizes that if it owns ITEL, it will be able to green-light investments quicker and have more control over its international strategy.’
Macbean does not expect the loss of HBO to impact adversely on ITEL’s U.S. business – even though it was HBO contacts that helped win it representation of the Court TV catalog. ‘We have strong and independent links with the likes of A&E, PBS and Discovery which I expect to continue,’ he says.
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 have an earlier involvement in international financing negotiations. United Film & Television Productions chief John Willis, a renowned documentary-producer himself, is also chairman of ITEL – and is keen to grow links between the two.
Judging by United’s previous re-branding exercises, it’s safe to assume that the distributor will 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. We spend a great deal of time trying to sell single docs but get a much greater return on brands like Survival and Partridge Films, which are part of the United family, and BBC’s Timewatch which we represent. If we are going to grow this business from £40 million to £60-£65 million a year then we need a shift in emphasis.’
Macbean has started introducing a new tier of senior management at ITEL, and will now also have to replace managing director Paul Sowerbutts, who recently made the jump to United. McBean has poached fellow Swansea-native Ian Jones from Scottish Television Enterprises’ Cascade to be head of sales. The move will free up Macbean to spend more time working on pre-production investment strategy with United and animation studio Cosgrove Hall – in which ITEL has a 75% controlling stake.
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 than predecessor Rachel Bark, who recently left itel to join C4 International. Although most of ITEL’s activities to date have centered on kids, there are opportunities to develop the Survival and Partridge marquees.
For Cascade, the loss of Jones is a severe blow, coming so soon after the departure of Teleri Roberts to Southern Star. Both Jones and Roberts were brought in from S4C International 18 months ago to build STE’s presence on the international stage.