British TV execs brace for 'Baywatch' blitz

A bill before Parliament would allow US ownership of British channels, drawing cash – and, some fear, trash.

Turn on a TV in Britain and you may wonder which side of the Atlantic you're on. Any night of the week it's easy to find US favorites like "The Simpsons," "Friends," and HBO's "The Sopranos." Even "The West Wing" has a following, despite mixed feelings here about the real-life men and women running Washington.

"You don't even think of it as being American. It's just television," says Russell Marks, a security guard at the National Gallery, who has been watching US programs for years.

Brits and Americans regularly trade TV shows – summer hit "American Idol" started out on this side of the pond as "Pop Idol." But the relationship between British and US television could become even more intimate in the coming year, thanks to a new communications bill proposed by the government here.

In an effort to promote competition, British officials plan to open ownership of commercial TV to non-European Union companies. It would make Britain the latest European nation to do so, and could clear the way for US giants like Viacom or AOL-Time Warner to buy into a top market for Hollywood exports.

Going global

The proposal is a sign of further movement away from local ownership of media in Europe. Clinging to that tradition "really flies in the face of global investment, so you're tending to see that change," says Everette Dennis, a professor of media management at Fordham University in New York.

Average British viewers applaud the idea of more American involvement and programming – saying it could improve ratings, because many people already watch US shows. But the idea is drawing mixed reactions from those in television circles here, as broadcasters and others debate aspects of the new bill, set to be taken up by Parliament this fall.

US ownership could mean increased investment in programming, which would ultimately benefit viewers, say some commercial broadcasters. But others in the business find the idea of US owners difficult to swallow – especially if British media companies don't get equal access to US channels. They also wonder if US ownership would lead to more, but poorer-quality imports, and a lack of investment in and airing of local fare.

New US dumping ground?

"Broadcasters want the investment, but they don't want to be eaten alive," says David Wood, deputy editor of Broadcast, a weekly British trade publication. "There's a sense that historically, when US media has taken over ownership or launched channels in different markets, those channels haven't customized to the local markets, and they tend to be dumping grounds for American programming."

Squeezing out local fare would be the last thing a company would do – unless it wanted to jeopardize its ability to attract viewers and advertisers, said AOL-Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons at a recent gathering of the Royal Television Society in London: "This is a very attractive market. Any of us would like to be here in larger scale. [But] at the current levels at which some of these assets trade, I'm not sure you're going to have a stampede in the bidding process."

One appealing thing about British television is that English-language programs are easy to export, Mr. Parsons noted.

Britain is already the second-biggest exporter of TV programming, with hits including kids' shows "Bob the Builder" and "Teletubbies" and game shows "The Weakest Link" and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" Even so, British television, once heralded for its quality and innovation (think "Monty Python") is now suffering.

Competition among the primary channels in Britain is lopsided, with commercial channels competing against the BBC, which is publicly funded. With less money to innovate, some channels have been accused of dumbing down their programming to compete for viewers and advertisers – filling evening hours with reality programs and soap operas.

Fighting reruns

"Most of British TV is repeats," says Robert Hilton-Ash, a station worker in the London subway system who pays for British cable TV, and thus gets channels other than the ones that would be up for sale. "Most of the things I watch are American," he adds.

The idea of American ownership doesn't bother all TV-watchers here. Mr. Marks, the security guard, says, "It depends on what it would mean. Does it mean all our television is made in America, or more money to spend on things?"

Some in the industry are seeking assurances that British productions would be allowed to bloom and grow under US ownership. A parliamentary committee assigned to look at the proposal has already asked for the decision on foreign ownership to be delayed until after a new regulatory body, created by the bill, considers the issue.

But backers of the bill remain set on not waiting to open the market. "I don't think that [the new regulator] is going to be in any better position than we all are now to judge the merits of foreign [ownership]," Patricia Hewitt, a member of parliament and the secretary of state for trade and industry, told the Royal Television Society.

She reiterated that the government would safeguard British television: "We will have protection in place to prevent any US companies simply dumping low-quality programs on our screens."

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