Acquisitions Roundup: Universal Channel Picks Up UK Rights To ‘Law & Order: SVU’ Season 15, ‘Psych’ Season 7 & More

By Patrick Munn - July 28th, 2013 @ 12:43 pm UTC

EXCLUSIVE: With pilot season, the upfronts and the LA Screenings now behind us, numerous UK broadcasters are in various stages of acquiring next season’s new shows for their schedules (Sky Living just acquired The Blacklist from Sony Pictures Television and Channel 4 acquired Showtime’s Masters of Sex, again from Sony Pictures Television, while Disney Media Distributions’ Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. & CBS Studios International’s The Millers and We Are Men are also close to landing sales with UK broadcasters). While all eyes are on these new series and the various deals that are being hammered out, TVWise continues its extensive acquisitions coverage with our broadcaster-by-broadcaster breakdown of which current shows will be coming back later this year or early next.

In this rundown (following our rundowns on Alibi, Comedy Central, Dave, FOX, Really, Syfy UKTCM and Watch), we take a look at Universal Channel. Owned and operated by Universal Networks International (the global channels division of NBCUniversal), Universal Channel launched in the UK in 2009 as a rebrand of the Hallmark Channel. The channel offers “the best in quality, large scale entertainment” and despite being a general entertainment channel, Universal’s audience tends to be female skewed. In addition, Universal Channel attracts a more mature audience with 46% being 55+. Much like its sister channel Syfy UK, Universal has, by and large, avoided the growing trend amongst younger and digital broadcasters (such as FOX, UKTV and BSkyB) to commission originals and is still an acquisitions driven channel, with a decided focus on drama.

The acquisitions strategy on Universal has been described as “evolving” and “a work in progress” by my sources. The channel, dating back to its days as the Hallmark Channel, has long been home to the Law & Order franchise, but beyond that Universal has tried different tacks with programming in an attempt to carve out a unique identity. The channel has tried harder hitting shows (such as Law & Order and the more recent acquisition of Bates Motel) and softer shows, many of which would be better categorised as dramedys (such as Fairly Legal and Harry’s Law). The result has been mixed. The Law & Order franchise has always been a solid performer, but the A&E series Breakout Kings failed to impress. Conversely, the dramedy series Harry’s Law was attracting an audience of around 0.4 million viewers (nearly double the audience of Special Victims Unit), while the similar-in-tone Psych attracts an audience of around 0.1 million viewers. Beyond US programming, Universal has also gone after Canadian series such as King, Rookie Blue and Motive.

Quite unlike sister channel Syfy UK, where there is a distinct ratings disparity between US and non-US programming, these Canadian and other international imports have all performed quite strongly for Universal, frequently out-rating Americans series. The channel’s highest rated first run series’ are Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (0.22 million viewers), Rookie Blue (0.21 million viewers), Major Crimes (0.18 million viewers), Motive (0.17 million viewers), Royal Pains (0.11 million viewers) and Psych (~0.1 million viewers). Execs at Universal have also shown that, when not bound by life-of-series deals (such as is the case with Psych and Royal Pains), they are prepared to drop underperforming shows such as Breakout Kings. But, by and large, Universal’s first run acquisitions have all pulled their weight and as such will all be returning to the channel. I’ve confirmed that Universal has picked up the rights, from NBCUniversal International Television Distribution and Warner Bros. International Television Distribution, to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit season 15, Major Crimes season 2, Motive season 2, Psych season 7 and Royal Pains season 5. Those series will air on Universal Channel later this year or early next, alongside recent acquisition Bates Motel. Full details follow below…

Bates Motel

Created by Carlton Cuse, Bates Motel was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and picks up as Norma Bates, following the tragic death of her husband, buys a motel on the outskirts of the idyllic coastal town of White Pine Bay, seeking a fresh start. As Norma and Norman get ensconced in their new home, they discover this town isn’t quite what it seems, and the locals aren’t so quick to let them in on their secrets. But the Bates’ are done being pushed around and will do whatever it takes to survive – and will do whatever it takes to protect their own secrets. Bates Motel is produced by Universal Television and stars Freddie Highmore, Vera Farmiga, Max Thieriot, Nicola Peltz and Olivia Cooke.

One of three series that have been acquired by the Universal Networks International owned Universal Channel in 2013, Bates Motel is said to represent the channel’s commitment to airing the “best” in U.S. programming. Between Cuse’s reputation in the industry and what has been described as stellar performances from Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga, there was a lot of buzz and interest in this series. I hear that there were at least two other UK broadcasters who were interested in the series, but Universal Channel managed to secure the series in an exclusive deal with corporate sibling NBCUniversal International Television Distribution in April of this year. The acquisition followed the pick up of Major Crimes and the two series, it is hoped, will lead to higher ratings for the channel. At the time of acquisition of Bates Motel, Director of Universal Channel James Newton described the series as “the most-distinctive and talked-about new dramas” of 2013 and stated he was proud that they had secured the series for Universal. Under the terms of their deal with NBCUITD Universal holds the rights to both season one and season two of the series. The first season of Bates Motel is currently set to premiere on Universal in September.

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit

Created by Dick Wolf, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit revolves around the activities of the Manhattan Special Victims Unit of the NYPD, which investigates sexually based offences. The drama series stars Mariska Hargitay, Dann Florek, Ice T, Richard Belzer, Tamara Tunie, Danny Pino and Kelli Giddish. Raul Esparza, who recurred on the fourteenth season as Assistant District Attorney Rafael Barba, has been upped to series regular for the show’s upcoming fifteenth season, which has received an initial order for 22 episodes.

The one surviving remnant of the Dick Wolf’s once vast Law & Order empire, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is widely considered to be Universal Channel’s flagship show. Despite the fact that it is about to enter its fifteenth season, the series, which has been a fixture on the channel for many years, is still very popular both on NBC state-side and here on Universal. “We’ve had shows that rated higher”, one source tells me, “but SVU, and the franchise as a whole, has defined us.” While it is true that previous first run series have had higher ratings than Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (NBC’s Harry’s Law for example), the series is still (at present), the channel’s highest rated series. It’s also worth noting that SVU is the only series which Universal airs within weeks of its US premiere. The show’s 13th season launched on Universal in October 2011 and averaged an audience of 0.23 million viewers. The most recent season of Law & order: Special Victims Unit, the show’s 14th, premiered in October 2012 and saw a slight dip in the ratings with an average audience of 0.22 million viewers, just above Rookie Blue‘s 0.21 million viewers to rank as the number one rated series on Universal. Sources tell me that, under the terms of an existing life-of-series deal with NBCUniversal International Television Distribution, Universal Channel holds the rights to the show’s upcoming 15th season. I’m also told that Universal will again be airing Law & order: Special Victims Unit close to its US airing, with the channel currently eyeing a mid-late October premiere.

Major Crimes

Created by James Duff, Major Crimes follows the major crimes unit of the LAPD following the departure of commanding officer Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson. With Johnson gone, the team must learn to adapt when Captain Raydor is transferred in from Internal Affairs to run the unit. More controversially, Captain Raydor and Assistant Chief Taylor mandate that the Major Crimes Unit, rather than attempting to score a confession as Deputy Chief Johnson did, will now enter into plea bargains with suspects. The drama series is produced by Warner Horizon Television and stars Mary McDonnell, G.W. Bailey, Tony Denison, Michael Paul Chan, Raymond Cruz, Phillip P. Keene, Kearran Giovanni and Graham Patrick Martin, with recurring guest stars Robert Gossett, Jon Tenney and Jonathan Del Arco. Nadine Velazquez (My Name Is Earl) joins the cast of the series for its second season as Deputy District Attorney Emma Rios. As the second season opens, the Los Angeles Police Department’s Major Crimes division immediately dives into some of the most challenging and fascinating crimes yet, including the murder of a big-time film producer’s wife, an apparent murder-suicide and a LAPD ride-along that leads to a startling discovery. Right when the squad seemed to be adjusting to last year’s leadership change, a new Deputy District Attorney, Emma Rios (Velazquez), arrives to challenge Raydor’s intentions and shake up the department. Torn between what is morally right and what the law commands, Raydor and her team are faced with more struggles than ever as they continue to make deals and crack cases.

Major Crimes is one of only three series that Universal Channel has acquired (thus far) in 2013. Between the fact that the series is a spin-off of the popular series The Closer and that it featured Mary McDonnell in her first regular role since Battlestar Galactica went off the air in 2009, there was a lot of buzz surrounding this series; from both fans and within the industry itself. The series launched state-side on TNT in August 2012 and it was several months later, in February 2013, that Universal Channel beat out two other UK broadcasters and acquired the series in an exclusive deal with Warner. Bros International Television Distribution. That deal was one of the channel’s most high profile acquisitions of recent memory (next to, arguably, The Finder and the more recent Bates Motel) and was being eyed as a potential new flagship series for the channel. Major Crimes launched in the UK on the Universal Networks International owned channel in March 2013 to strong ratings. The premiere episode was watched by 0.23 million viewers, rating above the slot average and ranking as the channel’s highest rated premiere since Harry’s Law back in 2011. Across its 10 episode first season, Major Crimes averaged an audience of 0.18 million viewers. With those figures the series outstripped established series such as Royal Pains and Psych to become the third highest rated series currently airing on Universal Channel; ranking only behind Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Canadian series Rookie Blue. As we initially reported at the time of the acquisition, under the terms of the deal to acquire Major Crimes from Warner Bros. International Television Distribution, Universal Channel holds the rights to the show’s second season (and, while the series has yet to be officially renewed by TNT, there is already talk of securing season 3 from Warner Bros). The second season of Major Crimes will premiere on Universal Channel on Monday August 5th at 9pm.

Motive

Created by Daniel Cerone, Motive follows Vancouver homicide detective Angie Flynn on a backwards chase for clues to a killer that has already been revealed to viewers. The series follows both Flynn and her team and the killer, giving the audience the opportunity to delve inside the mind of a criminal and understand their motive. The series is produced by Foundation Features & Lark Productions in association with Bell Media and stars Kristin Lehman (The Killing), Louis Ferreira (Stargate Universe), Lauren Holly (NCIS), Roger Cross (24), Brendan Penny (The Assistants) and Cameron Bright (Twilight). The series was recently renewed for a 13 episode second season, which is set to enter production this Summer.

Motive is one of only two non-US scripted series to which Universal Channel holds the exclusive first run UK rights (the other is Rookie Blue, which is currently airing its fourth season on the channel). The series, like the aforementioned Rookie Blue, is Canadian and was originally commissioned by CTV back in May 2012, with the show’s first season launching in February of this year. Between what has been called a “unique spin on the crime procedural” and a strong cast which includes, amongst others, former NCIS and Picket Fences star Lauren Holly and 24 and Continuum actor Roger Cross, Motive generated a lot of buzz amongst international buyers. So much so that it was eventually acquired for broadcast by ABC in the United States. Universal Channel followed suit and acquired the series from corporate sibling NBCUniversal International Television Distribution in May 2013. The series then premiered in early June and proved to be something of a hit for Universal Channel. The pilot, which originally aired on June 13th, was watched by 0.21 million viewers; above the slot average, but just shy of the 0.23 million viewers who watched the series premiere of Major Crimes back in March. Since then the series has seen some drop off in the ratings and has been (season-to-date) averaging an audience of 0.17 million viewers, ranking as the third highest rated series currently airing on the channel. As part of the deal that was inked with NBCUITD to acquire Motive, Universal holds the rights to the recently ordered 13 episode second season of the series. I hear that the show’s second season will air closely behind its Canadian premiere in 2014.

Psych

Created by Steve Franks, Psych follows the daily lives of Shawn Spencer and his best friend Gus as they perform their duties as consultants for the Santa Barbara Police Department. The only hitch is that everyone (except for Gus and his father Henry) believes that Shawn is a psychic detective, when in truth he is not and often requires the help of Henry and Gus to close the cases he is assigned. The drama series is produced by Universal Cable Productions and stars James Roday, Dulé Hill, Timothy Omundson, Maggie Lawson, Kirsten Nelson and Corbin Bernsen. The show’s seventh season will explore Gus’ personal life, feature the wedding of one of the main characters and deliver new ‘psych-isms’ crafted for the series’ legions of devoted fans, affectionately known as PSYCH-O’s. Parminder Nagra will recur as Gus’ girlfriend, exposing his romantic side and creating jealousy with Shawn. Additional guests include Katy Mixon, Garcelle Beauvais, Jeffrey Tambor, WWE’s Big Show, as well as the return of Cybill Shepherd and Kristy Swanson.

Widely considered to be the “spiritual successor’ to Monk, Psych is a less serious crime procedural than other staple shows on Universal Channel. Sources say that the acquisition of Psych (and fellow USA Network series Royal Pains, to a lesser extent) was part of the channel’s attempt to forge a unique identity. “We weren’t Hallmark but what did that mean? Could dramas that were admittedly not as hard hitting as other entries and geared at younger audiences still work?” said one insider. No doubt, Psych does have a fairly loyal audience but it is not one of the channel’s higher rated entries (it is, in fact, the lowest rated first run series on the channel). The most recent season of Psych to air on Universal Channel, the show’s sixth, attracted an average audience of around 0.1 million viewers, ranking behind other entries such as Major Crimes, Motive, Rookie Blue and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. That said, Universal acquired Psych under a life-of-series deal with NBCUniversal International Television Distribution, and as such will be airing the show’s seventh season. From what I’m told season seven is being targeted for a January 2014 debut, with sources indicating that they may, once again, air the 16 episode season in double-bills.

Royal Pains

Created by Andrew Lenchewski and John P. Rogers, Royal Pains revolves around Hank Lawson, a doctor who was let go from his position as a physician at a busy ER in New York City after he loses a patient. Banished to The Hamptons, he becomes a doctor to the rich and famous, as well as those in need, in a practice which is known as concierge medicine. The drama series is produced by Universal Cable Productions and stars Mark Feuerstein, Paulo Costanzo, Jill Flint, Reshma Shetty, Brooke D’Orsay and Ben Shenkman. In the show’s fifth season, Hank is ready to return to work on the first weekend of summer after spending the winter recuperating from brain surgery. With their Hamptons medical concierge service, HankMed, busier than ever and Boris’ death still a mystery, Hank finds himself relying on Jeremiah in a very surprising way. Evan’s rescue of an influential neighbour has unexpected consequences for his future. Paige’s work at an auction house gives her an eye-opening look into Boris’ estate. A newly single Divya finds her plan to focus solely on work hitting an unexpected snag after the return of an ex. And a change in ownership at the local hospital brings new complications for HankMed.

The second USA Network series which has found a home on Universal Channel, Royal Pains has been a fixture on Universal’s schedule for the past few years. The series launched state-side on USA Network in 2009 and has always been a strong performer for the network, but the series’ performance on Universal, much like fellow USA Network import Psych, has been less solid. The show’s third season premiered on Universal Channel in June 2012 and averaged an audience of 0.11 million viewers. The show’s fourth season debuted on the channel earlier this month, with the season premiere attracting an audience of 0.12 million viewers. With those numbers the series ranks only above Psych in the ratings. Sources tell me that, much like Psych, Royal Pains was acquired from corporate sibling NBCUniversal International Television Distribution under a life-of-series deal. Given that, the channel holds the rights to the show’s fifth season (which is currently airing on USA Network) and upcoming sixth season (which was ordered as part of last year’s two-season renewal). I’m told that, with the fourth season of Royal Pains currently airing on Universal Channel, the fifth season of the series is being targeted for a Summer 2014 premiere.