Universal Channel, Syfy UK Make Big Play For High-End US Dramas

The competition amongst UK broadcasters to snap up the exclusive rights to the latest drama and comedy series coming out of the United States has always been fierce.

Given the spending power of Sky, more often than not it is the satcaster that winds up taking the most talked about shows out of the LA Screenings, but they too often find themselves up against the likes of Channel 4 & Channel 5, and more rarely the BBC and ITV.

But beyond those well established players the competition is growing. From OTT services such as Amazon Prime and Netflix, to UKTV and other multi-channel broadcasters with deep pockets.

The signs of that growing competition has been apparent for the past couple of years; from UKTV jumping to pole position as the most active buyer of new content out of the 2013 LA Screenings, to Netflix UK grabbing Better Call Saul and Amazon Prime Instant Video UK’s exclusive deal for Outlander.

But, arguably, one of the more surprising developments of the past couple of years in this area has been the resurgence of Universal Networks Internationals’ UK arm, with both Universal Channel and Syfy UK making serious plays for content out of the LA Screenings…

Over the past two years, Universal Channel and Syfy UK have been able to swoop in and secure the exclusive rights to some very high profile series being shopped by the Hollywood Studios.

Said series have included Rake, Sleepy Hollow, Bates Motel, Graceland and How To Get Away With Murder at Universal; while Syfy UK managed to secure The Vampire Diaries Spin-off The Originals and TNT’s The Librarians to name just a few.

Some observers have questioned just how these two channels, which were once considered a “wasteland of repeats”, have been able to turn things around and make an aggressive play for these glossy imports and the viewers that inevitably go with them.

In short: Universal Networks Internationals UK arm was able to “turn things around” by recognising what they had and just what they could do with it.

“It really was about focus”, one source tells me.

Universal Channel (New Logo)Universal Goes Big

Universal Channel, specifically, required a careful push.

Despite having shaken the Hallmark name in 2010, after the initial rebrand Universal Channel was still operating in the shadow of its former self, with the channel still being somewhat associated with family friendly programming.

Following that initial rebrand in 2010, NBCUniversal sunk more money into Universal Channel UK, pursuing more exclusive acquisitions with the Law & Order franchise as the back-bone of their schedules. In the years that followed, there were hits and misses and before long a strategy emerged.

The best performing shows, Universal insiders noted, were those with strong characters, with Harry’s Law being highlighted as a keen example. And so, when the time came for a new rebrand in 2013, it was with character at the forefront.

From that point on, any new exclusive scripted buys would feature “strong characters”, though the channel did remain invested in certain procedurals such as NCIS and Major Crimes – the latter of which Universal has under a multi-year deal and one insider referred to as a “hybrid”, somewhere between a procedural and character driven drama.

Sleepy HollowWith the tagline “100% characters” and a new clearer brand identity, as well as NBCU’s deep pockets, the channel was able to “focus” its efforts and aggressively pursue any new content that fitted in with the new positioning, starting with A&E’s Psycho prequel Bates Motel.

That new found aggressive pursuit came to the surprise of several rival UK broadcasters who soon found themselves locked in serious competition for several big ticket series out of the LA Screenings, most notably 20th Century Fox’s Sleepy Hollow and Sony’s Rake.

That trend continued this year, when Universal emerged after the LA Screenings, following heated competition from rival UK broadcasters, as the exclusive UK broadcaster of Shonda Rhimes’ new hit How To Get Away With Murder.

SyfyGet Me A Mirror, The Biggest Sci-Fi Hits Would Work Too

Over at Syfy UK, there was a similar shift in strategy. If Universal was about strong characters, Syfy UK was about being the destination of choice for science fiction fans.

First of all, the channel would not be making the same mistakes of its US cousin. “Unscripted doesn’t work for us”, a source at the channel told TVWise in 2013. (It turned out to be a prescient statement, as it was a conclusion that the US network would themselves come to that same year.)

No, time and again data had proved scripted was what worked best and that is where the focus needed to be

Up until 2013, Syfy UK had cherry picked certain shows out of the United States to add to their schedule, with mixed results. V had been a big performer for the channel, but there had been misses as well.

What was needed, it seemed, was for the channel to embrace and expand the brand.

DominionSyfy in the US was (and still is) in the middle of making a serious play in scripted again after years of neglect, beginning with Defiance. That would soon be followed by series orders for the likes of Dominion, 12 Monkeys, The Expanse, Olympus and so on.

And so, it seemed, the best way to cement Syfy’s position as THE location for genre entertainment in the UK was to embrace the existing brand by mirroring the scripted line-up of its American cousin, as closely as they can. That strategy is what led to acquisitions such as Defiance, Dominion and more recently 12 Monkeys.

(“It’s not always possible”, a source notes, explaining that with the US Syfy network now opening its doors to suppliers outside the NBCU family, they can’t always get the rights to Syfy original series. A notable example of this is the Lionsgate distributed six-hour event series Ascension, which Syfy UK pursued but ultimately landed at Sky1 in the UK.)

In addition to Syfy originals, the channel also opted to fill the schedule with the best new science fiction series coming out of other networks in North America, as well as repeat showings of iconic hit series including Firefly, Buffy The Vampire Slayer and the Star Trek franchise.

Much like their sister channel Universal, Syfy UK was aggressive where it needed to be.

They beat off major competition to secure The Vampire Diaries spin-off The Originals, struck a shrewd deal for the latest season of Canadian science fiction series Continuum and the snapped up exclusive rights to Dean Devlin’s The Librarians. Syfy UK also struck a good deal for the linear rights to CBS’ Extant out of the mandate to bring the best sci-fi to their audiences.

The Results Speak For Themselves

Major Crimes (FT)It is clear that the refined brand identities and strategies at both Universal Channel UK and Syfy UK coupled with an increased content spend is what has allowed these two channels to make such a big play for premium content out of the LA Screenings, often competing with more established players.

It’s hard to argue with the results, with audiences turning up to these new shows in droves.

After all, Major Crimes on Universal continues to grow its audience year-on-year, Sleepy Hollow’s debut smashed the channel’s ratings records, while How To Get Away With Murder’s premiere drew an impressive 320K viewers, smashing the 12 month slot-average.

Extant (FT)While over on Syfy UK, The Originals continues to be one of their top performing series. Extant, despite its availability on Amazon Prime Instant Video UK, premiered to more than 400k viewiers; while the The Librarians series premiere broke previous records to become the channel’s highest rated overnight broadcast in five years.

With both channels having now found a strategy that works for them in an increasingly competitive marketplace, they plan to continue to push the advantage. Universal Channel and Syfy UK are set to continue as major buyers of content from the Hollywood Studios, with both looking to premiere anywhere between 5 to 10 exclusive acquisitions every year.

It would seem that the competition is here to stay.