Long-suffering shareholders in Fairfax Media meet in Sydney on Thursday. What shareholders probably won’t be updated on is that Fairfax could still have been the owner of the company that makes the highly successful UK costume drama Downton Abbey, which screens on the Seven Network in Australia and which last week was extended to a third season in the UK.
Fairfax has a track record of badly-timed asset sales, as recent history shows. Back in 2007-08 Macquarie Media took over Southern Cross Broadcasting, and Fairfax bought metro and regional radio stations (the latter were recently sold) and the TV production business known as Southern Star. The market didn’t like that Southern Star deal, Fairfax didn’t understand the TV production business and wanted to be rid of it as quickly as possible after realising it couldn’t control the rights to the various productions that Southern Star did for the commercial TV network, or the overseas sales rights that it had for some productions, like Seven’s Home and Away.
But before the Southern Star sale, Fairfax got rid of one of the smaller investments, Carnival Film and Televisions, based in the UK, which was sold to NBC Universal in the US in 2008 for around $48 million. They were valuable funds in 2008 when Fairfax was struggling as the financial impact of merger partner Rural Press threatened to send the company broke as it faced a slide in circulation and advertising revenues. Southern Star first invested in Carnival in 1997 with a 40% share, which increased to a controlling shareholding of 75% in 2004. The other 25% was owned by Gareth Neame, the CEO of Carnival.
In 2008, Carnival produced for the UK market: Hotel Babylon 4 (BBC), Harley Street (ITV), Whitechapel (ITV) and Midnight Man(ITV). It has also produced Whistleblowers, Hotel Babylon (series 1-3), Traffik, The Grid, Rosemary and Thyme, Poirot (1988-2003) and Jeeves and Wooster. But the big deal is Downton Abbey, which was made in 2010 for ITV and revitalised the UK period costume drama. The first series screened in the UK last year and on the Seven Network this year. Series two ended in the UK last night and the third series was commission last week by ITV.
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The new series will see Downton Abbey move into 1920s Britain. It will again be written by show creator Julian Fellowes and will follow the Crawley family and their servants into the post-war world of 1920 and 1921 England. An average 11.5 million people watched the first two episodes of series two. The kudos, cash and other benefits could have been owned by Fairfax, if it had held its nerve.