Bobby Hain: Talking TVThey say change is good. In which case the future of Britain’s third channel looks golden. Looking back over the last 12 months, you would be hard pressed to find a group of companies that have undergone as dramatic a change as the ITV network. South of the border the massive merger between Carlton and Granada has had rival media companies sharpening their knives and shaking at the knees, while north of the border fellow ITV broadcaster Scottish Television has seen parent company Scottish Media Group sell off both its publishing division and, more recently, its shares in Scottish Radio Holdings.
As if this wasn’t enough, Scottish Media Group’s restructure of its management team late last year saw managing director Sandy Ross move to a group development role while Bobby Hain, business development director of Virgin Radio, took the reins as STV boss.
After little more than a month in arguably the hottest seat in Scottish media, Hain met up with The Drum to discuss the state of the nation.
Following the departure of Ross, Hain’s appointment was an interesting one. A lifelong stalwart of the Scottish radio industry, how equipped was he to step over to television?
“Interestingly, the way television is, with regards to radio, conceptually the businesses are the same,” says Hain. “We are fighting against the BBC, largely, for audience. We have commercial competitors who are competing for a share of revenue. If you go back 25 years, when commercial radio and commercial TV were slightly different businesses, the idea of someone moving between radio and television would have been more unusual but I think that now the potency of what you do, whether it’s on radio or television, is absolutely first and foremost and you must drive the closest connection you can with your consumers, whether they are listeners or viewers.
“So, in that sense, I think the jobs are a lot more similar now than they have previously been. It’s great to have the chance to try both.”
Being head of the table at Scottish Television, Hain is now responsible for the profit and loss of the company (“it’s my name above the door”) as well as ensuring that the company fulfils its quotas with regards to the amount of Scottish programming it produces.
“What that really means, of course, is that you’re dealing with all aspects of the business, from people who are making programmes right the way across to how the channel is marketed, how the channel looks on air, how we deal with and interact with all our commercial partners and how we can develop ourselves as a brand, over and above simply what our programming is,” explains Hain.
Needless to say, all this is likely to keep Mr Hain more than a little busy. When asked if there has been any restructuring or changes made as yet, however, he is keen to stress getting settled in has been priority number one.
“This is a very large organisation with hundreds of people who work for us and anyone who rushed in and changed things around in their first month would be, I would suggest, not acting in the best interests of the company. I think you’ve got to get your feet under the table, get to know everybody, and really get to understand the way the business works before you start to change it.”
Rather than making rapid, short-term changes, Hain states that his thinking will be more long term. And one area he is keen to develop is the perception of the Scottish Television brand as a whole, rather than just as a number of different programmes.
He explains: “If there’s one thing I’m keen to get people doing it’s to be loud and proud about Scottish TV the brand, for the simple reason that most of our viewers tend to relate to Scottish TV in terms of the programmes they watch, whether it’s Scotland Today, Pop Idol or Scotsport. I think, on the other end of the scale, SMG as a corporate entity and a holding company for Scottish Television and lots of other brands has a certain profile. I think we could probably develop the profile of the Scottish TV brand within that context. That’s the one thing I’m loud and proud about doing and encouraging everybody to do in these early months.”
Hain has taken up his new role at a crucially important time for the UK media as a whole. Huge changes have been expected up and down the country, and when the first of these was announced last year you could have counted the number of surprised media people on one hand. The aforementioned Carlton/Granada merger has formed a single ITV in England for the first time, but what does this mean for Scotland?
Hain is optimistic about the deal from an STV perspective. He remarks: “Clearly, it will have an impact on us, and I firmly believe it will be a positive impact, because we will be clearly differentiated in Scotland as Scottish and Grampian, but we will also benefit from being part of a much more cohesive network, which is similarly produced as it is now, but with none of the tensions of two large companies operating together.
“When you have a single ITV it is in everyone’s interests that we have a strong mainstream commercial TV channel in this country.”
These changing times have brought with them their own challenges, however, including the introduction of the new UK media regulator, OFCOM.
“We’ve got to forge a new relationship with the regulator,” Hain says. “We’ve got to join with them in actually making sense of the Communications Act and delivering it for ourselves and our viewers. No-one should underestimate how big a task that is.”
One of the first OFCOM undertakings is a massive consultation into public service broadcasting. This review will decide exactly what the organisation wants from UK channels, STV included.
And OFCOM aside, the growth of the television industry as a whole throughout the UK poses another challenge to STV’s new skipper, as the channel fights to retain audiences and revenues in the face of increased competition from both terrestrial and digital broadcasters.
“I think one thing’s clear: the number of channels is only going to increase. So in a more competitive world things like the branding of a channel and what a channel stands for and the content of a channel will come much more to the fore, and I think we’ve got to be absolutely clear about that, and we’ve got to want to win.”
An obvious question about the future of Scottish Television is the question of its ownership. With Carlton and Granada nestling in together as ITV Plc, will STV be the next step?
“I certainly don’t believe that’s either imminent or inevitable, that’s for sure. I think that the basis on which the companies have come together requires a huge amount of work to deliver the £100 million worth of savings that they’ve promised their shareholders in year one. I can’t imagine, given the necessity to focus on that £100 million which is in the front of everyone’s mind, that they will be too interested in acquiring other companies, and I would include ourselves in that.”
Perhaps not an interest from the merged Carlton/Granada then, but with the Communications Bill now in place, ITV Plc is not the only company that could be looking at Scottish Television with hungry eyes. Is there a threat to Scottish broadcasting from media companies outside the UK?
“First and foremost, in terms of broadcasting, there is a huge amount of regulation on what people can and can’t do. In that sense, it doesn’t matter whether the shares are owned by a single company, a selection of companies throughout the UK or a foreign owner. The onus on them is to continue to make programmes. We’ve got to make 626 hours of programmes this year, and we would have to make those programmes regardless of who our shareholders were. I don’t think there would be any impact on the viewers, because not only do we have to make those programmes, we have to satisfy the regulator that we are passing a quality threshold and that we are providing a range and diversity in programmes.
“I think it would be impossible for a new owner, whoever they may be, for any UK television company to significantly change the complexion of that company’s output, so regulated is that output in the first place. I think that whoever holds the shares for viewers and commercial partners the impact is minimal because the way these companies are regulated is so tight.
“Secondly, it’s not at all clear how we move forward in this apparently de-regulated world. On the one hand, we’ve got a large part of ITV now under common ownership. On the other hand, relatively small radio takeovers have been blocked. So the future is not immediately clear.”
One thing is for sure: in the days ahead, the media industry will continue to change. In terms of Scotland, the next change is already underway, with SMG announcing that it is hoping to move to new premises in 2005, where it will be sat next to its very own “auld enemy”, BBC Scotland. In terms of STV itself, though, Hain seems confident that the company is on a sure footing, whatever the changes may bring.