ITV accuses BBC of ‘bleating’ about cuts while wasting cash on Meghan show

Meghan Markle as Rachel Zane in the first series of Suits. She left after seven series when she met Prince Harry.
Meghan Markle as Rachel Zane in the first series of Suits. She left after seven series when she met Prince Harry - FRANK OCKENFELS/USA/NBCU PHOTO BANK VIA GETTY IMAGES

The head of ITV has said the BBC cannot keep “bleating” about cost-cutting when it is splashing out on American programmes such as the Meghan Markle drama Suits at the same time.

Kevin Lygo claimed that the corporation outbid ITV for the series, saying it is the wrong use of licence fee money. ITV complained to Ofcom last year that the BBC had dramatically increased its spending on US-made acquisitions, despite talking up cost pressures.

The BBC announced the acquisition of Suits last month and plans to show it later this year. The series, which is several years old, is currently available on Netflix.

Suits made a household name of the Duchess of Sussex, who played paralegal Rachel Zane for seven series. She joined in 2011 but quit after meeting the Duke.

Meghan Markle and Patrick Adams in series 7 of Suits
The now Duchess of Sussex with her co-star Patrick J Adams in her final series of Suits - USA NETWORK/NETFLIX/KOBAL/SHUTTERSTOCK

Addressing the Voice of the Listener and Viewer conference, Mr Lygo, ITV’s managing director of media and entertainment, said he was frustrated by the BBC bidding for US shows.

Discussing cost pressures on public service broadcasters, he said: “You hear the BBC bleating about it and yet they have all the money in the world.

“Why do they buy all that American stuff? I’ve had a go at so many different BBC people about this.

“They just bought Suits, the thing with Meghan Markle. You think: why? They outbid us, by the way. What’s that got to do with licence fee payers’ money?”

In its complaint to Ofcom last year, ITV complained about acquisitions including the US series Superman & Lois, and films such as Marvel’s Avengers Assemble.

“The BBC competes in the market against other broadcasters, such as ITV, inflating the price at which the content is purchased,” it said in a submission.

BBC should be ‘buyer of last resort’

ITV previously told the Culture, Media and Sport select committee that the BBC “should not be permitted to acquire content that is already made (or a format that already exists in another territory) where another commercial rival is prepared to purchase that content or format.

“In other words, the BBC should be the buyer of last resort for pre-existing content or formats in the UK market.”

The BBC, which is in the middle of a cost-cutting programme, has not disclosed how much it paid for Suits, which it acquired from NBCUniversal in a package with two lesser-known US shows, St Denis Medical and The Best Man: The Final Chapters.

Announcing the acquisition, the BBC called Suits “smart and stylish” and “star-studded”. The corporation intends to broadcast it on iPlayer and one of its terrestrial channels.

ITV had extraordinary success this year with Mr Bates vs the Post Office. The series about the wrongful conviction and jailing of sub-postmasters has been viewed by 13.5 million people in the UK and prompted Paula Vennells, former chief executive of the Post Office, to hand back her CBE.

Kevin Lygo
Kevin Lygo made his comments at a televison industry conference - JAMES VEYSEY/SHUTTERSTOCK FOR EDINBURGH TV FESTIVAL

But Mr Lygo said that ITV had lost money on the drama, because the story was so British that international buyers were few and far between. “It cost more to make than we have been able to sell it around the world,” he said.

“We made a loss of something like £1 million. If you’re in Lithuania, four hours on the British Post Office? Not really.”

ITV will next tackle the infected blood scandal using a Peter Moffat script which Netflix turned down, Mr Lygo said.

He added: “[After Mr Bates] we were inundated, my inbox was full of people saying, ‘Oh, I’ve got a miscarriage of justice.’ And, I’m not joking, half of them are about potholes. If somebody can come up with a good story about potholes, we’ll take that.”

A BBC spokesman said: “Our spend on acquisitions remains very small when compared to our overall budget, where we are the largest producer of originated programmes in the UK.

“We spend less than 5 per cent of our annual content budget on acquired programmes, far less compared with other broadcasters.”