When it comes to acquisitions, few multichannel broadcasters have been as bold or as ambitious as UKTV in recent years.
It’s fair to say that the commercial network, which is a joint venture between BBC Worldwide and Scripps Networks Interactive, came more or less out of nowhere on this front around five years ago with a range of high-profile US acquisitions including Body of Proof and Castle. That was soon followed up on with a big three-series deal with NBCU for Suits, Covert Affairs and Grimm.
It was that deal in 2011 that is widely recognised as being something of a turning point, when the Hollywood majors starting taking UKTV more seriously and it also signified the beginning of a “step-change” with UKTV going after high-profile US series.
In the years that followed, UKTV has been able to pursue and, after fending off competition from other UK buyers, secure first window on some big ticket series, such as JJ Abrams’ series Believe and Almost Human. Something that, as TVWise previously examined, has made them a “key player” with the studios alongside the likes of Sky, Channel 4 and Channel 5.
But was UKTV’s journey from being a “bit player” to a major force with the studios an easy one? Were the studios all that receptive in the beginning? “I think the studios are always receptive and it’s just about building up a relationship”, UKTV’s Director of Programme Acquisitions Catherine Mackin recently told TVWise. “It’s very much about evolution, because you can’t go from A to Z terribly quickly, can you?”
“I think the studios have been really fantastic”, added Head of Acquisitions and Co-Productions Alexandra Finlay, before noting that UKTV top brass carefully considered the strategy before they really started down this path of acquiring these typically more-expensive American scripted series.
“We were absolutely, I would say, probably dipping our toes into it and there absolutely were discussions that we had to have internally”, she added. “Looking at first run scripted acquisitions from US studios, we needed to show that these were titles that could deliver and contribute to the business.”
By and large they have done just that, with one of UKTV’s earliest imports, Alcatraz, still holding the record as their highest rated acquisition. The 13 episode series, from Lost producer JJ Abrams, delivered an audience of more than one million viewers – up quite significantly on Watch’s slot average back in 2012.
Other huge successes in this area over the past few years have included Suits on Dave; Castle, Body Of Proof and Rizzoli & Isles on Alibi; and Grimm, Resurrection and The Strain on flagship entertainment channel Watch. “We’ve had a pretty good hit rate”, said Mackin, adding that most of the series they’ve acquired have returned for multiple seasons.
It is UKTV’s acquisitions strategy of only pursuing shows that specifically fit the editorial brands of their channels that has allowed them to have such a solid hit rate with US acquisitions. “Suits would not have worked on Watch”, Finlay said, highlighting how key the editorial approach was to their successes.
“Alibi has a core crime proposition which fundamentally lends itself to pieces like Castle and Rizzoli & Isles”, she continued. “With Watch being more terrestrial in terms of its feel and its mix of genres, we’ve got more scope there to try a different range of content. It’s having these really strong channel brands, which come from the re-launches that we did a few years ago that has really enabled us to have [these acquisitions]”.
Another key factor in ensuring that US acquisitions land and rate well has been strong and unique pushes on the marketing and publicity front, coming from what Catherine Mackin described as “a fantastic press and marketing team”. “We don’t necessarily have the budgets of a Sky or a Channel 4 in terms of marketing and we don’t have a terrestrial platform where we can advertise our shows for free”, added Finlay.
“But what we’ve always done is we’ve worked really really closely with the studios, in terms of their PR and marketing teams, to make sure that we are absolutely giving the best possible profile and scope to any new shows coming into the channels. I think one thing that we’ve been very successful about is really making our shows feel loved”.
Both of UKTV’s top acquisitions executives were also keen to express how happy they were to be working with all of the major studios. “Catherine and I think it’s such a nice collaboration”, said Finlay. “We’re so happy to be working with the studios and I think, I hope, that they feel happy to be working with us”.
“I hope so! I think they do”, added Catherine Mackin. “I think we have a really great relationship with all of our distributors and I think our relationships get more sophisticated, they get more developed as we go on and you know that’s really exciting for us. And long may it continue.”