When it comes to US scripted acquisitions, the UK market – which next to Canada is the most important one for the Hollywood studios – is always evolving.
Things have changed significantly in recent years as the BBC has all but abandoned US scripted in favour of home-grown drama and comedy; Sky retreated ever so slightly from such imports for similar reasons and a high number of returning dramas last year, only to reverse course somewhat in the past few months and re-commit to exclusive first run U.S. drama on Sky Living; while OTT services Netflix and Amazon have been competing alongside traditional broadcasters for content out of LA.
But one of the biggest changes to hit the market came early in late 2014 when Viacom completed their acquisition of Channel 5, securing the FTA broadcaster from Richard Desmond’s Northern & Shell. It was not immediately clear what effect the Viacom ownership would have on the wider industry, in terms of commissioning or acquisitions. But the better part of a year later, the effects are clearer, with C5 benefiting from a greatly increased budget and closer ties to their fellow Viacom owned sister channels MTV UK, Comedy Central UK and the recently launched Spike UK (in fact, Spike operates under the umbrella of Channel 5’s programming team).
On the commissioning side, there has been a push into co-commissions between Channel 5 and Comedy Central UK and Channel 5 and MTV UK, but it is on the acquisitions side of the business that the synergy is most apparent. Shortly after Viacom closed the deal, the acquisitions teams at the relevant VIMN UK broadcasters were overhauled and re-organised under Katie Keenan, who had served as Channel 5’s Head of Acquisitions when it was still owned by Richard Desmond.
Under this new set up, Keenan has overall responsibility for acquisitions across Viacom’s portfolio of UK channels, supported by a centralised acquisitions team that includes, amongst others, Marie-Claire Dunlop, Channel 5’s Acquisitions & Channel Manager; and Brad Wood, Director of Acquisitions for Comedy Central UK (pictured, left). It is that team that is responsible for sourcing imports for Channel 5, 5*, 5USA, Spike UK, MTV UK and Comedy Central UK, depending on the requirements of the individual channel brands.
Since the merger, that team has been responsible for securing such shows as Tut for Channel 5 and Spike UK, NCIS: New Orleans and CSI: Cyber for Channel 5, Bob’s Burgers and Undateable for Comedy Central UK; and Justified, Breaking Bad, Sons Of Anarchy, Transporter: The Series and Canadian cop drama 19-2 for the nascent Spike UK.
As part of TVWise’s continuing feature series on U.S. acquisitions, TVWise recently spoke with Katie Keenan’s top lieutenants Marie-Claire Dunlop and Brad Wood to find out about the opportunities the Viacom merger has opened up, the new acquisitions strategy across the VIMN UK portfolio, what kind of series the respective channels are in the market for post-LA Screenings and much more.
TVWise: What is the acquisitions strategy across the newly aligned group?
Marie-Claire Dunlop: Within Channel 5’s portfolio we obviously have four distinct brands [Channel 5, 5*, 5USA and Spike UK]. For Channel 5, in terms of acquisition strategy, it’s really about getting those noisy, highly promotable pieces in the schedule. A good example is Gotham. In terms of a 16-34 male audience it performed outstandingly well, so we are looking for those kind of dynamic pieces in the schedule. But we also don’t want to alienate our heartland audience who love a procedural show. 5USA is 100% acquired and that’s home to the best U.S. crime drama and we’re looking at boosting that output. In 2015 we launched The Mysteries of Laura, which averaged over half a million viewers. For 5* we’re looking for younger-skewing content, so fun sexy, glossy, shows. Finally on Spike UK we launched Transporter recently and it really is about finding those high-octane dramas with a male-skew.
Brad Wood: So from the comedy perspective obviously acquisitions are incredibly important to us. We don’t have a formal arrangement with our U.S. network, so every programming decision is very much on a case-by-case basis. We’re very keen to find the next big show for Comedy Central.
TVWise: Since Viacom acquired Channel 5, both Ben Frow and Jill Offman have been clear on the desire to find shared commissions for C5 and Comedy Central UK. Is this an area being looked at in the acquisitions space as well?
Marie-Claire Dunlop: Most certainly. It doesn’t even have to take the form of a comedy, we are looking at that across all genres because that just makes sense. Whether it gets a premiere run on Comedy Central or Channel 5 first is really dependant on the channel’s needs at the time. But that is the whole beauty of [the Viacom acquisition] and comes down to the fact that we are such a joined up team now. There’s one centralised acquisitions team so we’re always having this on-going dialogue about acquisitions and whether any sharing can be done between the free and pay channels.
TVWise: Channel 5 has largely steered clear of comedy in the past, what are the ambitions in that area going forward?
Marie-Claire Dunlop: As Brad will tell you, there hasn’t been any breakout hits in comedy for a long time. It would be very short-sighted of us not to consider comedy on Channel 5 given the fact that [our average audience] is the youngest it’s been since 2007. So, yes, we would definitely be open to taking a comedy for Channel 5, but it is about finding one that will be returnable and will stand out and be a suitable fit for Channel 5.
Brad Wood: [Comedy Central UK] is in a fairly good position in terms of returning shows and I think we’re likewise approaching [new acquisitions] with a bit more caution than we have in the past. Across the board, it seems like there’s not been that many new deals announced so far and I think we’re evolving the brand more with local commissions, big name UK stand up talent and non-scripted. We’ve recently acquired Bob’s Burgers and Undateable, which are tried and tested pieces, already at volume, that are still in production and they feel right at home at Comedy Central. We’ll be looking at what launches well in America and go from there and I expect that to be the case across the group.
TVWise: As we mentioned earlier, there have only been a handful of deals announced at this stage, so can you talk about what kinds of shows you are in the market for post-LA Screenings?
Marie-Claire Dunlop: With Channel 5, our wish list is so broad across each of the four channels… There is the continuation of the superhero genre and with the pick-up of Gotham we have been considering other shows of that ilk. We’ve got CSI: Cyber launching this autumn starring Patricia Arquette and that is another procedural. So we are looking at a combination of procedural content as well as those noisy pieces for the schedule.
Brad Wood: From my perspective, as I’ve said before and sorry to go on about this, but comedy has been in a weird place for the last few years now. Of the twenty shows we screened in 2014 in LA only five got second seasons and only one of them, The Last Man On Earth, has a UK home right now and I think that says a lot. So I think you have got to be really careful when you’re spending that sort of money on launching these unknown brands in the UK because in some cases they can be just as expensive as getting behind a new commission. We’re very keen to see how things launch in the U.S. before committing to anything else.
TVWise: Now that Two And A Half Men has come to a close, are you looking for a big broad comedy that could replace it?
Brad Wood: I’m pretty sure every single one of my competitors would sit here saying they’re looking for the next Two And A Half Men or The Big Bang Theory – of course we are. The problem is we just haven’t seen one in a while. That said, we’re in a fairly unique position where we’ve organically grown some franchises like Impractical Jokers and Inside Amy Schumer this year. We’ve increased variety in peak, we’re growing share in 16-34s and we’ve recently renewed Friends for another four years and it remains the back bone of the schedule. FriendsFest sold out in a record 30 minutes which shows people can’t get enough of that show. I think we’re in a fairly comfortable position, but absolutely we wish the U.S. was churning out more guaranteed hits and we’d love to find one.
TVWise: Are you looking across the landscape considering cable shows along the way, or are you more focussed on network shows?
Brad Wood: Absolutely, we look everywhere for content. As I say Impractical Jokers is becoming one of our best performers and that is from a cable network.
Marie-Claire Dunlop: I think from a Channel 5 perspective, certainly for our digital channels, we are always considering content from cable networks. For example, we acquired season four of The Walking Dead for Spike most recently and that obviously does fabulously well on FOX UK as well as for us. That outperformed our expectations on what is a relatively small channel at this stage, Spike is still very much in its infancy. But cable shows are becoming as good as network shows in terms of bringing in those desirable audiences that every broadcaster wants.
TVWise: With this commissioning push at Comedy Central UK what kind of mix are striving for in commissions vs acquisitions?
Brad Wood: I can’t really comment from the commissioning side, but as you say the emphasis has definitely shifted. But, again, I just think that’s a sign of the times. We struggled with the U.S. output and we’ve had some opportunities in the UK with local formats such as Drunk History and Impractical Jokers. That said, the team here watches anything that’s even vaguely comedic in the U.S. in the hopes of finding the next breakout hit and we started taking risks and pushing boundaries with the kinds of shows you’d expect from Comedy Central. We had a show last year called Epic Meal Empire and I think we’ll continue our diversification into non-scripted and build on successful franchises like Impractical Jokers and our recent Channel 5 co-commission Cats Make You Laugh Out Loud. Moving forward we’ll keep a healthy balance between commissions and acquisitions but I think you should expect more variety of genre. We’re keen to be known as a comedy destination, not just the U.S. repeats channel.
TVWise: With Netflix and Amazon pursuing first window on shows out of LA now, do you view streaming services as a major threat or is there still room to work with them as we saw on the Gotham deal?
Brad Wood: I think from a comedy perspective there’s been very little in the way of big first run acquisitions, which you’ve seen in drama across those VOD services. What we are seeing is them producing their own comedies, like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix last year. At the moment I’ve not really felt the pressures of competition from a Netflix or an Amazon, but I suspect that could change.
Marie-Claire Dunlop: It presents opportunities as well for us. Obviously with the Gotham pick up, Netflix have a window on that as well and it really helped to combine forces for both a SVOD provider and a linear broadcaster to get what they want. If you can work out the windowing, you can work with them and that is something we are very open to in order to secure the shows we want.
TVWise: Since its launch, you’ve acquired a wide range of exclusive dramas for Spike, can you talk about what you’re looking for in a drama for that channel going forward?
Marie-Claire Dunlop: With Spike we have two drama slots, Wednesday night and Friday night. We are a co-viewing channel with a slight male-skew, so we really don’t want to alienate a female audience. We can be high-octane, but we’ve just got to be mindful that at the same time we are a broader, more eclectic entertainment channel. The most recent example is Transporter, we picked up both seasons one and two. Season one is currently airing and it has been one of the strongest performers for us. With Breaking Bad, we were the first free-to-air channel to air every season of it and stripped at 11pm – this delivered beyond expectations as well. It is about those broad pieces, we don’t want niche propositions, they’ve got to be populist and mainstream.
TVWise: A number of Spike’s acquisitions – Breaking Bad, Justified, Sons Of Anarchy – were shows that were originally on Channel 5, but for myriad reasons, the licensing deals weren’t renewed at the time. What made these shows good enough for Spike when they weren’t good enough for Five?
Marie-Claire Dunlop: They were never on the main channel. Sons Of Anarchy was actually a 5USA proposition, so they never were picked up for Channel 5. These shows were always a digital proposition. What’s happened since we’ve been acquired by Viacom is we’ve created very distinctive brands. 5* is younger skewing, Spike is co-viewing with a slant towards the male audience, and you’ve got 5USA which is home to the best U.S. crime drama. That’s three very distinctive brands. To stick Sons Of Anarchy and The Walking Dead on 5USA just doesn’t make editorial sense, whereas it does with Spike. Ultimately we felt that as [Spike] was one of our more male skewing propositions, it was worth picking up the rights to those shows again, because they are great dramas.
TVWise: Which of the shows that went to one of your competitors do you wish you had gotten and why?
Marie-Claire Dunlop: For me, probably Scorpion actually. That was one of those great procedurals that would also bring in that 16-34 audience. At the time we thought ‘Oh is this too young for our heartland audience who love the likes of CSI and NCIS?’, but in retrospect I think it’s something that would have worked really well on both Channel 5 and 5USA. That’s one that, if we could turn back time, we would definitely offer on again.
Brad Wood: I think it’s fair to say that we would have loved the Seth MacFarlane package that ITV2 got [laughs], I don’t think that’s any surprise. On a personal level, I loved The Last Man On Earth that went to Dave, but I think we have to really find a balance between brand defining critically acclaimed shows and ratings drivers when sourcing new shows. So while I loved it, I’m not sure it would have had the repeatability we need on Comedy Central.