When it comes to US acquisitions, the UK has always been a highly competitive market and, while the studios would be loath to say so publically, it, next to Canada, is one of the most important territories in terms of international distribution.
As with all aspects of the industry, the level of competition has evolved over time, with big name UK buyers BBC and ITV more or less shunning US drama and comedy in recent years in favour of home-grown fare. The Beeb came to a position that buying a wealth of American content did not “add value” for the license fee payer, while ITV is looking to originate more content so they, like the US studios, can exploit that IP on the international market.
Sky has been a major force in studio deals for the better part of two-decades and while they have been snapping up less content out of LA in recent years as part of a declared move to focus more resources on home grown comedy and drama, they remain, overall, the most prolific buyer of first run US content. Channel 4, likewise, remains an aggressive buyer; while Channel 5 has gone through phases of focussing more on US shows, and then shifting resources on acquiring more international drama.
It was in this environment that several multi-channels were able to make a strong showing in previous years. Broadcasters like UKTV, Turner Broadcasting UK and Universal Networks International swooped for, and were able to secure, high profile titles (such as UKTV’s deal for Almost Human). But this environment is in the midst of evolving once more and one of the key takeaways from this year’s LA Screenings is that the field is getting crowded once again and the competition will only continue to grow.
There were some signs of this going into LA last week, with Sky having already declared that as part of a shift in strategies at Sky Living, the channel would be focussing almost exclusively on US acquisitions going forward. That change, which was spurred on by the fact that shows such as The Blacklist and Grey’s Anatomy were frequently out-rating commissions, is expected to see a not-insignificant increase in the number of US series Living acquires going forward.
Then there is the march of Netflix UK and Amazon Prime Instant Video UK. Since its launch Netflix UK has been keen to secure exclusive content for its local service and they have won big support from distributors and fans alike by swooping for shows such as Once Upon A Time and Breaking Bad, which were dropped by traditional broadcasters in the UK after a couple of seasons. Equally, since LOVEFiLM adopted the Prime brand in 2013, they have been aggressively pursuing exclusive content such as Extant, Black Sails and Vikings.
The competition amongst the OTT services there – both between themselves and other linear broadcasters – is only set to increase, especially after Amazon UK recently agreed an output deal with eOne for first-window on all series produced by AMC Studios (Turn, Halt & Catch Fire, Fear The Walking Dead). Both have been sending buyers to LA for a couple of years, but have yet to secure a BIG in-season network series out of the marathon event. This is set to be the year that changes, with both looking to make a splash. (More on exactly what they’re looking at later this week).
But when UK buyers landed into Los Angeles last week it became clear it was not just Sky, Amazon and Netflix that would be upping their game in the coming months. Channel 5, after having to make a number of savvy deals in recent years, made it clear that they were set to greatly increase the amount of US content they air – thanks in no small part to the fairly sizeable war-chest afforded to Ben Frow and acquisitions boss Katie Keenan after Viacom purchased the FTA broadcaster from Richard Desmond’s Northern & Shell. And its not only Channel 5 getting a boost from VIMN, Spike UK and Comedy Central UK are looking to “significantly increase” the number of US series they acquire.
The increased appetites for US content from new(ish) buyers Netflix UK & Amazon Prime Instant Video UK and the re-commitment of Sky and Channel 5, is “fuelling further licensing opportunities in this hugely complicated marketplace”, a senior WB exec recently told TVWise, before noting the “quirk” of selling titles piece-meal in the UK, compared to the situation on the continent where they have output deals with a number European broadcasters.
And it’s this level of renewed interest/increasing competition, coupled with the steady levels of business expected from other UK broadcasters – such as Universal Networks International, Turner Broadcasting UK, Fox International Channels (UK) and, of course, Channel 4 – that has a number of studio execs expecting a boost in sales this year. Something that is sorely needed after less-than-stellar sales results this past season. (Buyers meanwhile are fearful of a new spike in licensing costs amidst this greater competition).
There have already been signs of the increased competition, even at this early stage, with numerous bidding wars heating up, as the key UK broadcasters line-up to license the upcoming season’s biggest hits. There is already early talks of such “wars” for the X-Files revival, Criminal Minds spin-off Beyond Borders and medical drama Code Black. But perhaps the biggest indicator is early talk that the BBC is eyeing ABC’s The Muppets reboot, possibly for a prime-time slot on Saturday nights. It would be a bold acquisition, but also a costly one, as the seven minute presentation wowed buyers across the board.