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Viewers Are Finally Ready to Pay for TV Again, ITV CEO Says

Ten years ago, when Carolyn McCall was chief executive of the Guardian Newspapers Ltd., getting readers to pay for things they once received for free was a losing battle, she said.

How times have changed.

McCall—who has since done a stint at EasyJet, before arriving at British broadcasting giant ITV 18 months ago—says viewers are finally ready to pay for TV again, even if it means they have to subscribe to multiple streaming services.

How convenient, because ITV is getting on the streaming game. The company said in February it was pairing with state broadcaster BBC to create the “BritBox” service. That project has come amid a wave of fresh streaming services, including from Disney, as Netflix has transformed what viewers expect from their TVs. At the time, McCall said the platform would be launched in the U.K. this year.

The company has ample material to draw on: alongside news and live sport, it produces and sells its original dramas and reality shows to other broadcasters, including in the U.S., McCall said.

It is not clear when that service will be available, and ITV has already had a bumpy start to the year, after its first-quarter revenues were below expectations and the company warned of a difficult year ahead. Questions have also lingered about how committed the BBC is to the project, and whether it will have the collective might to fight against Disney and Netflix.

But far from decrying an already-crowded field, the company’s shareholders are on board with the next digital push, she said.

“Our shareholders have really got it. They may say, ironically enough, are you spending enough? Some will say, can you really win? They’ll ask the right questions,” she said. “But at the end of the day, they really look at you and say, you’ve got so much content, that to not take advantage of something really critical that has changed in the media landscape, which is that consumers are now willing to pay… When I was at the Guardian, consumers were not willing to pay.”

That transformation also means giving viewers the personalized experience they have come to expect, McCall said.

“We have an entire department of data scientists, analysts. We’re on a journey there, as they say, and we’re having to catch up, because no one in the past thought about doing that, but we can’t compete if we don’t do that,” she said. “You will want to have a user experience that is just like Netflix, and we’ve got to give you that.”