April 16, 2024

EXCLUSIVE: The competition investigation that is spooking the UK’s fabled TV drama industry looks set to rumble on until at least the end of the year.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has extended the probe into production company cartel behavior by six months and will implement “further investigatory steps and assessment of evidence” between now and October, according to an update posted by the authority. No assumption is being made at this stage that there has been a breach of competition law, we understand, although the CMA continues to say it has “reasonable grounds to suspect one or more breaches.”

No more information was forthcoming about the “investigatory steps” but Deadline is told the CMA has collected a huge amount of evidence and is currently sifting through, while it could still demand more information. For the most part, those being investigated are understood to have been unaware of the extension until it was posted by the CMA. The authority faces no deadlines for these cases and timelines tend to vary, we are told.

The investigation was launched last October into BBC StudiosITV StudiosHartswood FilmsHat Trick Productions, Red Planet Pictures, Sister and Tiger Aspect, a collective that has produced some of the biggest British hits of past decades including Sherlock, Dracula, Derry Girls, Death in Paradise, Chernobyl and This is Going to Hurt. Filed under ‘Civil Cartels,’ the investigation is digging into whether production companies have been colluding by informally fixing freelancers’ wage rates. Under UK competition law, this behavior is forbidden and rates either need to be negotiated independently or fixed through formal collective bargaining processes. Concurrent with the investigation is another into sports production that is further down the road.

A Deadline report in January found that those being probed were handing over troves of WhatsApps and emails to lawyers in order to prove innocence, while sources estimated that they were racking up collective legal bills in the millions of pounds.

Many said they were scared to discuss freelancer rates publicly due to the ongoing investigation. That feeling of “stress” and “jitter” has been prolonged by the extension, according to one indie boss.

The situation has become so strained that the likes of line producers are being “rapped on the knuckles for asking what indies pay at certain grades,” another source with knowledge of the investigation said.

John McVay, who runs UK producer trade body Pact, urged the CMA to be “cognisant” of the strain on his members’ coffers amid a tricky market.

“This involves lots of work for companies who are part of the investigation and a lot of expense,” he added. “These aren’t major corporations they are small businesses and it would be worrying if this extension incurs additional and increased costs. I feel for these companies.”

The CMA declined comment. At the time of Deadline’s January report, all the indies being probed declined comment.

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