Several months ago, shortly after the LA Screenings, there was a lot of talk about the new crop of shows that the big five networks had on tap for the 2013-2014 season and an expectation that the number of standouts and shows with established stars (such as Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar in The Crazy Ones) would lead to greater sales post-Screenings. But now, more than six months on, where do things stand? Was there that bump in sales that many working in acquisitions, on both sides of the equation, expected?
In short, no. All in all, there were 52 new shows this season up for grabs (not including NBC’s Dracula, a co-pro with BSkyB). A couple received late orders and weren’t shopped to buyers at the LA Screenings, but of those 52 new entries that were picked up by the five broadcast nets (ABC, CBS, The CW, Fox and NBC) only 16 have landed with UK broadcasters; accounting for a sell through rate of 31%. Some of those 52 shows, such as Murder Police, those with shorter episode orders like Killer Women or quickly cancelled series like The Assets are not expected to garner much (if any) interest from UK buyers. But, by and large, almost all of the series which emerged from the screenings with strong buzz (Marvels Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, The Blacklist etc) have been snapped up.
So who’s done the most business? On the broadcaster side of things Channel 4 has been the most aggressive buyer, picking up 5 new series (Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hostages for the main channel & Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The 100 and The Tomorrow People for E4), accounting for 31% of completed sales. In a reversal of their activity on this front last season when the company didn’t acquire any new broadcast series, Universal Networks International is in second place, having acquired three series (Rake and Sleepy Hollow for Universal Channel; and The Originals for Syfy UK), which accounts for 19% of completed sales. Sky, Comedy Central and ITV are in joint third having only acquired two new series each (24: Live Another Day for Sky1 and The Blacklist for Sky Living; The Millers and We Are Men for Comedy Central UK; and Dads & Mom for ITV2), accounting for 13% of completed sales apiece. While Channel 5 and UKTV are following behind with both having picked up one new series (Betrayal for Channel 5 and Believe for UKTV’s Watch Channel), which represents 5.5% of completed sale apiece.
On the distributor side of things, Warner Bros. International Television Distribution, who were pegged as having a remarkably strong slate going into the screenings, leads the pack, securing sales for 6 of the 10 series they were shopping and sources at the studio are still bullish about securing UK sales for both Almost Human and Surviving Jack. Following behind WB is Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution with 3 sales; CBS Studios International, Disney Media Distribution and Sony Pictures Television with 2 sales each; and NBCUniversal International Television Distribution lagging behind with only 1 sale to the UK.
Given the cyclical nature of the acquisitions business, year-to-year comparisons are a little specious, but comparing to the same point last season there are a couple of key takeaways. 1) This season had greater volume than the past two broadcast seasons (52 in 2013-2014 vs 39 in 2012-13 vs 43 in 2011-2012) and 2) at the same point last season, 15 shows had been picked up by UK buyers (though due to the lower total number of shows that did account for a 41% sell through rate). With one sale greater than at the same point last season there has been no real “bump” in sales, things are relatively flat in that respect. Posing a question that has been frequently asked since an infamous TCA panel, “is flat the new up”?
The more interesting question is what happened after the screenings, when there was this expectation, to the reality of more or less flat sales? For one, owing to the need for on-demand rights in this day and age, which adds a layer of complexity to deals, things are taking longer to tie down, an acquisitions executive at a multi-channel broadcaster tells me. And given that, there are more deals expected to be announced in the coming months especially given how, as one source put it, UK broadcasters “program year-round rather than following a strict September to May pattern.”
That said, there have also been hiccups along the way. As we reported at the time of the screenings, Channel 5, now under the direction of Ben Frow, was only looking to acquire a couple of shows. Those shows were ABC’s Betrayal and Fox’s Gavin & Stacey adaptation Us & Them. C5, who recently dropped a number of US acquisitions including Justified and Once Upon A Time, concluded the deal with Disney Media Distribution to pick up Betrayal, but following Fox’s decision to cancel Us & Them after only 7 episodes had been filmed, and before a single one had aired, backed away from a deal with Sony Pictures Television to pick up Us & Them.
Another broadcaster who was careful with what they went after was BSkyB. The satcaster is still the most prolific buyer of first run US content, but with a greater focus on home-grown drama & comedy and a large number of returning US series, they bought very little out of the LA Screenings – a move that was first hinted at by Sky Entertainment boss Stuart Murphy at Broadcast’s Commissioning & Funding Forum in July 2013. Instead, Sky adopted a quality over quantity approach and focused their resources on going after, and securing, what were arguably the two hottest dramas being shopped at the screenings: NBC’s The Blacklist and Fox’s 24: Live Another Day.
But with Channel 5 and Sky both scaling back why weren’t sales depressed year-to-year? That is due, in no small part, to other broadcasters’ expanded desire for US content – specifically Universal Networks International (UNI) and (to a lesser extent) UKTV. UNI – who operate Universal and Syfy here in the UK – has long been a key buyer of US content, but until a recent realignment at Universal, the company tended to go for cable series. This season Universal Networks International went hard after the UK rights to Sleepy Hollow and were also able to get a good deal for Fox’s midseason drama Rake, both for their Universal Channel; UNI also picked up The Vampire Diaries spin-off The Originals for Syfy UK, making it the first broadcast series acquired for the genre channel since 2010. UKTV – a company whose importance to the studios has been increasing over the past 2 years – went after JJ Abrams new NBC series Believe, which will air on their Watch channel, and it is understood that the commercial network is also in the process of finalising a deal for at least one more broadcast series from this season.
Continuing a trend, not only from last season but in general, drama was key with 11 of the new entries picked up by UK broadcasters falling into that genre (Betrayal, Marvel’s Agent’s of S.H.I.E.L.D., Hostages, Believe, The Blacklist, The 100, The Originals, The Tomorrow People, 24: Live Another Day, Rake and Sleepy Hollow). The reason for that is simply that there has long been a feeling that drama translated better than comedy and that was just as true this season when the comedy offerings were such a mixed bag. There were a few standouts (The Goldbergs, Mom and Brooklyn Nine-Nine), a few duds (Back In The Game and Super Fun Night) but most had acquisitions execs shrugging their shoulders. Interestingly, no UK broadcasters have gone after the so called “new classics” featuring big stars of sitcoms from years past, such as The Crazy Ones, with Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar; Sean Saves The World, featuring Will & Grace alum Sean Hayes or The Michael J. Fox Show. Instead buyers went for the new entries from Chuck Lorre, Seth MacFarlane and the Golden Globe winning Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
Of course, we’re not quite done yet. With the next LA Screenings coming up in late-May there is still time for a number of entries from the 2013-2014 season to cross the pond. I’d be surprised if we didn’t see some movement with Intelligence, The Goldbergs, Surviving Jack and Almost Human. It’s also worth noting that given Netflix’s and LOVEFiLM’s desire to pursue more exclusive content for the UK, it’s only a matter of time before both start acquiring first run content out of the screenings (especially given that both had reps at last year’s screenings for the very first time). Though for now both are keeping their eyes on cable, with Netflix having recently picked up Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul and LOVEFiLM having taken season two of Vikings.