Economy threatens the quality of British television

February 12, 1992|By New York Times

LONDON -- The forced resignation of the executive chairman of Granada Television Ltd., whose hits included "Brideshead Revisited" and "The Jewel in the Crown," has stirred fears here that quality programming will be sacrificed in the quest for short-term profits in Britain's increasingly competitive television industry.

Granada is one of Britain's most respected commercial television companies, and its critically acclaimed programs have proved quite popular in the United States as well as in Britain.

But recent changes in the economics of British television may push broadcasting companies to cut programming costs, a move that could depress sales of British programs overseas, especially in the United States, the largest market.

The debate over profits versus programming is neither new nor confined to Granada; indeed, it lay at the heart of the controversy surrounding the British government's auction of the 16 commercial television franchises that comprise ITV, as the Independent Television network is known.

One leading broadcaster, Thames Television, lost its franchise in the October auction. And some other commercial television companies were forced to make such high bids that they are expected to seek cuts in ITV's overall budget.

At Granada, which kept its franchise for a relatively low bid, its chief executive, David Plowright, still faced demands for increased profits that he thought would compromise the quality of his company's programming.

Plowright, who was the head of programming when "Brideshead Revisited" and "The Jewel in the Crown" were produced, balked at these demands, so last week he was forced to resign.

Plowright's ouster has already provoked protests.

Some 70 writers, including Alan Bennett, John Cleese, Harold Pinter and Fay Weldon, said in a letter to the British daily The Guardian that Plowright's ouster posed "a serious threat" to Granada's "continued production of programs of quality and distinction."

Another letter, signed by nearly 50 directors and producers, including Derek Granger, the producer of "Brideshead Revisited," said the dismissal of Plowright marked "a sad, black day not just for Granada but for British television as a whole."

Granger said in an interview that there was "an increasing chance" that American viewers would now see fewer good British programs.

In a statement earlier in the week, Gerry Robinson, chief executive of Granada's parent, Granada Group PLC, said only that he and Plowright had been "unable to reach a working agreement for the future."

Plowright, in the same statement, said more bluntly that there was a "fundamental disagreement" between him and Granada Group about "how to manage the change into the new broadcasting environment of the next decade."

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