The swap shop – repeat programming rights and new products

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Paul Hayes comments on the increasingly busy market between the BBC and ITV for repeat programming rights and new products alike and asks how it shapes their profiles in a commercial age

Television used to be a simple sort of place. BBC programmes were made by the BBC and transmitted on its own channels and ITV programmes were made by their various regional companies and transmitted solely on that station. This all began to change in the late eighties and early nineties as an increasing number of independent production companies began to muscle in on in-house production arms of the broadcasters, with the same companies often selling shows to both the BBC and ITV. At the same time satellite and cable channels began to appear. These new non-terrestrial channels had many programming hours to fill. The perfect sources for them were the huge archives of the established terrestrial broadcasters, with decades of popular mainstream archive television to exploit.

The BBC's first venture into selling its programmes to a commercial broadcaster in the multichannel era came with the sale of various popular shows such as Doctor Who to cable station SuperChannel in the late eighties. This was followed by a run of BBC material during British Satellite Broadcasting's brief existence before its absorption by the Sky conglomerate, following which the BBC struck up a deal with ITV London franchise holder Thames to create their own satellite channel, UK Gold, in 1991.

With two of the biggest and most popular television archives in the UK to mine, UK Gold was instantly a hit with classic television enthusiasts and still survives to this day under its new name of UKTV Gold, still co-owned by the BBC itself, now in partnership with Flextech since Thames ceased to exist as an independent entity.

However, as the nineties wore on, collaboration between the broadcasters in terms of sharing their archives reached even the terrestrial stage. In 1991 Channel 4 became the first non-BBC terrestrial station to broadcast a BBC in-house produced programme when it showed the original Play for Today version of Scum for the first time as part of their 'Banned' season. They have continued to show occasional examples of BBC programming ever since.

Channel 5 have latterly got in on the act during their annual season of archive Christmas programming, with the broadcasting rights to gems such as Steptoe & Son being purchased by them from the BBC Worldwide sales catalogue. Even ITV itself is now getting in on the act and handing over money for the rights to exploit the BBC's archive - their digital station ITV3 recently began running repeats of the late eighties drama series Campion starring Peter Davison, originally made and broadcast by the BBC. This begs the question - is it strictly ethical for BBC Worldwide to sell the broadcast rights to a programme originally funded by the licence fee payer to a commercial station, especially one owned and run by the Corporation's major television rival, ITV?

Of course, the Beeb's publicly funded programming has often been sold to commercial broadcasters in other countries and on cable and satellite without anybody really batting an eyelid but now the stage has been reached when BBC Worldwide is prepared to invest funding in ITV programmes completely commissioned for the independent network.

Last year's Russell T Davies drama Mine All Mine was co-funded by the BBC's commercial arm, partly as a way of pre-paying for the US distribution rights so they could run the series on their digital channel BBC America over there. BBC America also runs much archive ITV and Channel 4 programming, which they have purchased the US rights to. Admittedly, BBC Worldwide is a completely self-funding commercial subsidiary of the BBC, so no licence fee money was spent on Mine All Mine but it still seems a strange decision that the Corporation in any form invested in an ITV drama and it is perhaps little surprise that the deal was not particularly well-publicised.

ITV of course will take what funding it can get whoever it may come from and ever since the 1990 Broadcasting Act required the BBC to purchase at least 25% of its television programming from independent companies, the ITV contractors have been keen to sell to the Corporation. Granada in particular have provided some palpable hits for the Beeb, such as the resurrected University Challenge and sitcom The Royle Family, although Granada is now such a massive company it no longer counts as an 'independent' in the BBC's figures.

It is not just new programming Granada will take BBC money for - in 2003 it sold the repeat rights to their prestigious Sherlock Holmes series starring Jeremy Brett to BBC2, the first really major drama from an ITV company to have been sold to the BBC, although earlier in the last decade BBC2 had screened several of ITV's sixties and seventies adventure series and Gerry Anderson productions, which were originally made for ITV by an independent production company.

So does all of this mean that barriers between British broadcasters are breaking down, with traditional inter-channel rivalries being forgotten in the face of a sense of commercial pragmatism? And more importantly, how far will it go? Could we one day see the seemingly endless Only Fools and Horses repeats running on ITV2 rather than BBC1?

Perhaps not but the thought remains that in the new commercial age, the BBC and ITV would sell their grandmothers to each other if they thought they could get a decent price.