For much of the past decade, UKTV has been spending more and more money on exclusive content. It started slowly at first, with a limited budget, but in recent years, and certainly since the arrival of Darren Childs as CEO, that budget has steadily increased as the company has continued to grow, not only in terms of audience reach, but creative relationships and record-breaking revenue as well.
Much of the attention that UKTV has garnered in the recent past has been focussed on their original commissioning push, which is perhaps understandable given the caliber of talent they have worked with as well as their willingness to embrace different models – AFP included – to deliver content to their audience across the ten channel brands.
But as UKTV’s own Catherine Mackin told TVWise earlier this year, it is not only commissions that have driven UKTV’s continued growth, acquisitions have also been “absolutely fundamental”. UKTV has been making a concerted push over the past five to seven years to acquire more and more exclusive scripted content from the Hollywood Studios, several of which have been equally important to UKTV’s successful growth story.
Said acquisitions over this time period have included Body Of Proof, Castle, The Glades, Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior and White Collar for Alibi; Alcatraz, Perception, Believe, Crisis and Almost Human for Watch; Suits for Dave; and back in the day Covert Affairs and Hart of Dixie for Really. A number of these shows have been strong performers for UKTV and were being sought after by other UK broadcasters.
Starting slowly on U.S. acquisitions as they did, and only after UKTV’s senior management had been convinced that they “could deliver and contribute to the business”, gave the perception that the company had come out of nowhere the better part of 3 years ago when it comes to U.S. scripted. But back then, the “big kids on the block” (Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky) saw them as another multi-channel bidder rather than a major threat. A perception that would soon change.
A senior executive at Channel 4, who asked not to be identified, characterized UKTV’s move into U.S. scripted as a “sleeper strategy” that caught them off guard, especially when they found they had lost JJ Abrams’ Fox series Almost Human to UKTV, who aired the sci-fi drama on Watch. In fact, it was around the same time that TVWise ran an editorial declaring UKTV as the one to watch in this space and by 2014, after a string of high-profile deals, they had cemented their position as a key player with the Hollywood Studios.
Being able to take on these major broadcasters for some of these series was a major coup for UKTV. But never one to rest on their laurels, UKTV has been increasing the competition to another level over the past year. After being focussed exclusively on drama in the acquisitions space, UKTV has since turned their attention to comedy. They wrestled the rights to Parks & Recreation away from the BBC and picked up Fox’s The Last Man On Earth and established a first of its kind three-hour Monday night block on Dave which included long-time acquisition Suits.
While reaction has been mixed, it was a move that certainly made some of their competitors take note, with a source at Comedy Central UK telling me that “they trumpeted it. There was suddenly a new competitor in scripted comedy.” More alarmingly, I’m told, was the clear strategy around the move and the creation of the comedy block. “You can’t acquire a single comedy, add it to a broad schedule and hope it works”, my source added, “you need a strategy and they clearly have one”.
Further evidence of UKTV’s ever increasing ambition for U.S. scripted acquisitions came just last month, when the multi-channel broadcaster revealed that they had inked a rich multi-season deal with Disney Media Distribution to acquire new Criminal Minds spin-off Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders, ABC’s FBI thriller Quantico and CBS’ medical drama Code Black.
In numerous press interviews, not just with TVWise but Broadcast and other trades, UKTV made no secret of the fact that they were looking for more procedurals, particularly focusing on crime and medical drama. Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders was identified early on as a target due in no small part to name recognition of the franchise, a international star in Gary Sinise and the fact that UKTV previously swooped for fellow spin-off Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior, which performed well for Alibi.
Still, somehow, UKTV’s big three-package deal with Disney Media Distribution took a number of their competitors by surprise and raised an entirely new question: When it comes to U.S. acquisitions is UKTV a threat? The answer it would seem is a resounding yes, especially as far as ITV, Sky and Channel 5 are concerned.
Sources at Sky tell TVWise that they were “stung” by the loss of Quantico, which the satcaster had been eyeing for a slot on Sky Living. They characterised UKTV as a “huge” threat, noting that they “lost Grimm to them and now the new Criminal Minds and Quantico”. There were also concerns, I’m told, that UKTV could potentially poach The X-Files from Sky, who are in talks to acquire the event series.
Channel 5, while not quite as surprised at UKTV’s growing prominence with the studios, expressed similar concerns, calling UKTV “one of our main competitors”. They know that from experience of course as in the pre-Viacom days Channel 5 was pursuing Beauty & The Beast when it landed at UKTV’s Watch channel and they too had designs on Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders.
ITV is also under no illusions. Much like UKTV, they only pursue shows when they specifically meet their channel brands, but even so ITV’s Head of Acquired Series Sasha Breslau went on record with TVWise over the summer naming UKTV as one of their main competitors. A senior executive at the commercial broadcaster went one better and called UKTV “a bigger threat than Netflix”.
While UKTV’s growing importance in U.S. acquisitions is only now being felt by their competitors, it is no surprise to the studios and insiders as Disney UK & Ireland called UKTV “one of our most important partners”. Between strong relationships with all of the studios and what a WBITD exec called the “undying passion and ingenuity” of department heads Catherine Mackin and Alexandra Finlay, UKTV is not going anywhere anytime soon and if anything they have a message for their more established competitors: “Move over, there’s a new kid on the block”.