ITV’s Head Of Acquired Series Sasha Breslau Talks Strategy, ‘The Americans’, US Drama On ITV2 & More (Q&A)

Sasha Breslau (FT)

While not quite the prolific buyer they were several decades ago, ITV is still a very active player when it comes to U.S. scripted acquisitions.

The broadcaster acquires a range of comedies and dramas from the major Hollywood Studios, with the vast majority of these now going on the youth-skewing ITV2, which becomes the UK home to new episodes of Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy later this year. The channel’s current roster of U.S. imports also includes Mom, The Vampire Diaries and Scorpion.

A couple of years ago, ITV also acquired a high-end U.S. drama for the main channel in FX’s The Americans. But after it failed to connect with viewers, ITV’s senior acquisitions execs opted not to renew their licensing deal for the series with Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution. Then last week, in a surprise move, ITV announced they had agreed a new deal with the studio which saw them acquire the next two seasons of The Americans to air on pay channel ITV Encore.

That deal was brokered for ITV by Head of Acquired Series Sasha Breslau, who was also responsible for bringing Scorpion to ITV2 and Fox’s Broadchurch remake Gracepoint to ITV Encore. The executive, who formerly worked at Channel 4, has been with ITV since 2008 and, following the recent LA Screenings, is keeping a close eye on the new crop of shows from the Hollywood Studios, looking to identify the next potential hit for ITV.

One such show which had been on Breslau’s radar that won’t be coming to the channel is ABC’s new take on The Muppets, which went to Sky1 after they did a rare early deal for the show on the ground in LA in May. “It’s probably not a secret to say that much like almost every other channel out there in the UK, we were into that as well”, Breslau said. “I think it would have been absolutely brilliant on ITV2 alongside the likes of Family Guy. [ABC/Disney] did such a good job with the presentation, so I’m quite jealous of that”.

In the below interview, Sasha Breslau talks to TVWise about the acquisitions strategy at ITV, the move to shift non-scripted programming to ITVBe, the importance of U.S. scripted acquisitions for ITV2’s programming strategy, the poor performance of The Americans on the main ITV channel, what that means for U.S. drama on the channel going forward and much more.

TVWise: How would you describe the acquisitions strategy at ITV?

Sasha Breslau: It’s a very broad one. Because I buy series across all of the channels, I look after scripted, non-scripted, first-run and library. It’s one of those things where I wouldn’t say that we could probably find a home for everything, because that’s not the case and there are certain genres we specifically don’t buy in. That said, we’ve got space for American, young-skewing dramas and comedies on ITV2 and I buy a lot of reality and lifestyle for ITVBe. So I would say actually it’s very broad and acquisitions are an important part of the strategy for ITV channels across the portfolio; although very much less so on the main channel obviously, because that’s where most of our commissions sit.

TVWise: ITVBe launched last year, with the channel taking the unscripted shows that sat on ITV2 for many years. More than six months in, how is that strategy working out?

Chrisley Knows BestSasha Breslau: What we’re trying to do is differentiate between ITV2 and ITVBe. So ITVBe is all about the best of non-scripted content. Some of it commissioned, but largely acquisitions aimed at women, young mums, 16-34s. It’s where we moved the Real Housewives [franchise] and The Millionaire Matchmaker. We’ve tried to add to that with a lot of other really fun, glossy, glamorous, entertaining titles and things like Dinner Date and TOWIE are really important to the schedule. What it means for ITV2 then is that we get to try and refocus that channel as much more 16-34s, with a focus on scripted as well. When you look at the daytime schedule [on ITV2], without the reality stuff it does look somewhat different. And it’s probably fair to say that we’re still trying to hone the acquisitions strategy for that channel, because the non-scripted stuff was so successful for ITV2 in that daypart, which is obviously why we then effectively spun it off into a whole new channel.

TVWise: How important are U.S. acquisitions to the programming strategy for ITV2?

Sasha Breslau: Very important. It’s one of those pieces of wisdom that people do accept because, personally, I think it’s true: young people really do love American shows, the comedies and the dramas. Which is not to say that I don’t think they have a lot of time for British content, of course they do. However, I think that the really good American dramas and comedies comprise content that really work for that type of viewer and it’s just got that water cooler factor, with people talk about it. Having that buzz around shows and having people coming to your channels to watch certain things, whether its linear or in catch up, is a good thing so it is absolutely important. The Family Guy deal is a big marker in the sand and one I would expect to indicate the way in which we are hoping to move.

TVWise: Between the Seth MacFarlane deal and Mom returning for a third season, is there still room for more US comedy, or is that ITV2 set for the year?

Family Guy Season 12Sasha Breslau: The launch date for all the Seth MacFarlane content is still TBC. In terms of going forward… as you say there is a lot of content there, however, the thing with Family Guy is that you really can’t play it pre-watershed [laughs]. I mean we could try, but you’d probably get in hot water with OFCOM about it [laughs]. No, from my perspective we are absolutely open to new content and for things that would play in other parts of the schedule too. So although we are very well stocked now for peak and late night, that doesn’t preclude us looking for other shows and actually it’s important not to just stop or get complacent. I think we want to make sure that we can build on that and really cement our reputation for great U.S. comedy.

TVWise: The closure of BBC Three does present something of an opportunity for ITV2. Are you actively seeking content that is aimed at that audience which has typically gravitated to BBC Three?

Sasha Breslau: From an acquisitions point of view, ITV2 really is about appealing as strongly as possible to that audience. So, yes, I’m very much looking for content which will serve that audience and of course BBC Three closing down at some stage does mean there is one less player. That said, apart from Family Guy, I think that with BBC Three, they don’t really buy a huge amount of American programmes anyway. There’s reasons for them to that, given that its licence fee money and [U.S. series] can go to other commercial channels. So our closest competitors from my point of view are channels like E4, Sky, UKTV, Netflix and all these other platforms.

TVWise: You’ve got Scorpion and The Vampire Diaries, but are you looking for more drama on ITV2?

Robert Patrick - Scorpion (3)Sasha Breslau: We’d love more drama on the channel, absolutely. Personally, of last year’s batch of shows, I really wanted us to get The Flash because I thought that would have been perfect for ITV2 in terms of its evolution. But we are very much open to more drama on the channel, more American drama. It’s just finding the right show and obviously managing to secure it, because it’s such a competitive marketplace.

TVWise: If we could talk about The Americans. It was originally acquired for the main ITV channel and was the first US drama acquired for ITV since 2008’s Pushing Daisies. But it failed to connect with the core audience, what do you think went wrong?

Sasha Breslau: I’m really proud that we did buy The Americans for the main channel. It started off reasonably well and then it tailed off. I do think that it’s really tough for any acquired drama on the main channel to go up against home-grown drama when ITV is, in the last however many years, going through such a string patch. When you’ve got all of our home-grown dramas rating so extraordinarily well, anything that comes in, whether it’s American or otherwise, has got its work cut out. The Americans is a really smart, quite subtle drama and I think in some ways its quite challenging, but I’m a huge fan of it. Ultimately, it’s probably something that appeals to fans of cable drama and although those viewers were there on the main channel, it just didn’t cut through enough.

TVWise: That being the case, is there still room for U.S. drama on the main channel?

The Americans - S3 (Episodic)Sasha Breslau: It’s a really interesting question and one that I think about a lot. I would love to get another American drama on the main channel, I think it would be a huge coup really, in lots of ways. It’s a really tough one to buy for because a drama for the main channel needs to be broad and feel warm. It can’t be too American centric, while still being distinctive enough to stand out, and I think that’s really tough. The other issue we have is that network dramas traditionally are around 22 episodes and we don’t really have the slots for that. That’s why we were looking towards cable dramas, because we can actually fit in a run of 12 much easily than we can a run of 22; which just doesn’t work in terms of our existing scheduling commitments when you look at how the main channel is scheduled throughout the year.

So you narrow the field even more by saying we can’t really look at network dramas either. Look, I’m going to be optimistic and say that I would very much hope during my time here I manage to find another American drama for the channel and if we did I would love for it to do well and succeed. It would be lovely to have something in the mix in the way that, going back several years before my time, that LA Law was on ITV and did really well in a mid-week drama slot. So I’m hopeful, it’s just I’m well aware of how tough it is and the pressures on anything that we acquire for the main channel.

TVWise: The LA Screenings were a couple of months ago now, broadly speaking what kinds of shows and what kind of volume are you looking to acquire?

Bordertown (FT)Sasha Breslau: Well, broadly speaking, we are looking at both comedy and drama for ITV2. In an ideal world, we would get one of each, but everything is to play for at the moment so I don’t know which way it is going to go. I suppose a nice thing with ITV, in terms of its acquisitions strategy and its needs, is that we’re not in a position where we ever have to desperately pick something up. We don’t actually have slots that if we don’t fill them with acquired content, then we’re going to have gaps in the schedule. So to that extent, we’re only going to buy something if we think ‘Yeah, this is the right show for us’ and of course if we can beat off the competition. So, yeah, ideally we’d get probably one new comedy and one new drama, but I don’t know how things are going to play out just yet.

TVWise: Aside from spin-offs being big again, one key trend this this past development cycle was a continuing reliance on superhero shows. These have typically gone to Sky in the UK, could you see one of these coming to ITV?

Sasha Breslau: Definitely! As I said before, I would have loved The Flash to have come to ITV2, so that would have been ace. I’ve looked at a few things with some level of interest over the last couple of years and I think Agent Carter is great. I really love Hayley Atwell in that, she’s such a great female lead. So, yes, if we found the right show and we had the slot for it, we would absolutely look at a superhero drama for ITV2.

TVWise: How important is exclusivity? Could you see ITV taking second window on a high profile show out of LA?

The X-FilesSasha Breslau: Yeah, that’s interesting. So far, our approach has been that if it’s for ITV2 or ITV we absolutely need the first window. I don’t know if that will necessarily be the truth for ITV2 forever. But at this point in time, if we were taking a brand new drama or comedy, I think we would need first window rights.

TVWise: How about longevity, especially considering the shift to event and limited pieces with shows like The Astronaut Wives Club or The X-Files Revival?

Sasha Breslau: I think it’s almost a benefit to the main channel if it’s one series and done. In the same way that UK dramas are often one series, might come back if they do really well, but actually are very much designed as pieces which come to a conclusion at the end of their run of episodes. So I think for the main channel, one and done is a good thing. For ITV2, returnable is what we’d be looking for. We don’t really commit to life-of-series deals, but we do multi-season deals traditionally, so for us something that returns and has a proven level of success and grows and retains the audience is useful.

  • Popeye13

    Thanks for these Q&A’s Patrick, excellent insight into the minds of those incharge of bringing content to screens and various channels