UKTV’s Catherine Mackin, Alexandra Finlay Talk Strategy, LA Screenings & Increasing Competition (Q&A)

UKTV is certainly riding high at the moment. The company, who just unveiled a state-of-the-art production facility housed at their Hammersmith Grove headquarters, recently released their record breaking financial results for FY 2014 and there was certainly a lot to boast about.

The commercial network, which is a joint venture between BBC Worldwide and Scripps Networks Interactive, has now firmly cemented their position as the fasting growing broadcaster in Britain, with an average audience share of 5.07%; while their SOCI and, in turn, operating profits also hit record numbers in 2014.

In a lot of ways the story of UKTV is one of growth, with 2014 being the fourth consecutive year that they have registered significant gains, both commercially and in terms of audience share. A huge part of that growth story has been driven by a wealth of exclusive US content acquired from the big Hollywood Studios over the last five to seven years.

In that time UKTV has had a pretty decent hit rate with American drama imports, with the vast majority of their acquisitions at least making it to a second season. Some of their bigger hits have included Suits, Castle, Rizzoli & Isles and Grimm. The team responsible for bringing all of these acquisitions to UKTV are led by Director of Programme Acquisitions Catherine Mackin and Head of Acquisitions and Co-Productions Alexandra Finlay.

Shortly before the LA Screenings last month, TVWise spoke to both executives about a wide range of topics including the winning acquisitions strategy at UKTV, what shows are on their shopping lists going into the screenings, increasing competition, the importance of acquisitions to UKTV’s programming strategy, a potential US scripted comedy buy and much more.

TVWise: What is the acquisitions strategy at UKTV?

Catherine Mackin: We have a portfolio of ten channels, but with the LA Screenings we’re clearly focussed on Watch, Dave and Alibi. So it’s narrow but broad at the same time, ironically, just because we have such a huge network of channels.

Alexandra Finlay: UKTV is very much a home to BBC second run content, so in terms of our move into US studio content in particular, it was very much about trying to find those first run premiere pieces which were really going to drive the rebranded channels. So the rebrands that we did over the last number of years are very much creating that sense of identity and the titles that we focus on in terms of extending out the Watch, Dave and Alibi propositions are very very key to those channels’ editorial strategies moving forward.

We don’t have to buy shows, what we do is we try and find those shows which work really really well with the relevant channel brand and feel as though they’re speaking to our viewers. Whether it’s a Grimm, or a Castle, or Body Of Proof on Alibi, or Suits on Dave; all of those are very much speaking to the existing audience but hopefully also broadening the audience out, which is obviously what anyone looks to do when they’re working across a channel.

TVWise: Let’s talk about the LA Screenings, what kind of shows are UKTV looking to pick up, broadly speaking?

The Strain (Episode 2)Alexandra Finlay: The priorities for us are going to be Watch, Dave and Alibi. I’m sure you’re aware of the content we’ve got across Watch at the moment, having shows like Grimm, Beauty & The Beast and The Strain. We want to continue to try and find the best shows. We’re fortunate in that we don’t have to buy for any particular slot, so it is very much about finding those shows which really tap into the Watch viewer. So we’re particularly looking for things which have a more procedural bent or repeatable bent to them, which obviously lends itself to genres such as medical and crime and so on. With Watch we’re being fairly broad in terms of our outlook at the moment and obviously particularly focussing on things where there is maybe a pedigree or a particular cast that really drives profile on those shows as well.

Suits is the main US content that we’ve got on Dave. We would love to find another piece that might sit alongside that. That could be either a drama or also potentially comedy, so again I think we’re fairly open to that. I suppose the key with Dave is that [the channel] has a very particular tone, editorially, where there’s a lot of wit and intelligence to the humour which is there, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be straight comedy. So again it’s about really hitting that sweet spot for the Dave viewer in terms of tonality and the editorial spec. On Alibi it’s all about the crime piece and in particular crime procedurals. Obviously, titles like Castle and Rizzoli & Isles have done fantastically well for us over the last couple of years and we’re absolutely seeking more content that will sit alongside those key titles.

TVWise: How closely do you track the US development cycle before you go into the screenings? Is it something you keep a close eye on?

Catherine Mackin: We do, absolutely. But you have to know that you track these things and then very quickly titles fall away. You try not to get terribly excited about it personally, but you think ‘God I’d really like to see that made’ and then it doesn’t happen. So you have to be terribly pragmatic about development. Until it gets picked up in New York, it’s a lottery.

Alexandra Finlay: It’s a loose tracking, but we try not to get too emotionally attached to any one [project]. It is a peculiar thing where there are so many different factors which impact on whether or not shows that have been in development for the last number of months will actually come to fruition. And that, for us, is probably one of the fascinating things about looking at the content coming through. You have this amazing monster that is the US development process and by the time you hit LA you come down to the very refined fine propositions, you know? And it’s interesting to observe that.

TVWise: In that case, are there any shows you’ve been tracking that you think have the potential to be the next big hit internationally?

Criminal Minds: Beyond BordersAlexandra Finlay: Certainly, it’s been interesting over the last couple of years looking at the fact that there has, for example, been a decrease in the number of straight procedurals. So it’s interesting thinking about ‘Ok what’s the first tranche of stuff that comes through?’ and then also ‘Is a series actually going to come back for a second series and will it have longevity?’ A lot of that again is tied to the international factors. Certainly we’ve heard from a lot of international buyers that wish that there were more procedurals coming through, because everybody experiences what we do in the UK market, which is that [procedurals] repeat far better than the event pieces or the more serialised pieces. That does seem to be an appetite internationally which is quite strong. An obvious example is the Criminal Minds spin-off. People love Gary Sinise and if that does work well, then you would have thought that’s got a fairly good chance of going through. Particularly because internationally, I’m sure all the buyers would probably be quite excited about it.

Catherine Mackin: That’s our mantra: “Bring back more procedurals”. It’s so exciting that there are these event pieces and it’s amazing that the studios and the networks now engage with launching summer shows like Under The Dome, for example. But at the same time we need utility, as does everybody else.

Alexandra Finlay: And to that point, we have a fairly healthy mix of procedural pieces in tandem with more serialised pieces. So something like Grimm is very procedural, although there are bigger serialised arcs. Then we have an ABC show like Resurrection, which is much more serialised in terms of focussing on the character dynamics and the drama of that scenario of people coming back from the dead. Even on Alibi, we’ve got Reckless which is much more serialised than a lot of shows like Castle and Rizzoli & Isles. It’s got a really fun, sexy, soapy quality to it which very much speaks to the Alibi female viewer. We don’t want to preclude anything, but there is just a fact internationally that procedurals do repeat. And that’s something that everybody is always looking for in terms of efficiency and in terms of a return.

TVWise: Competition for US content amongst UK buyers – particularly Sky, Amazon and Netflix – is only set to increase going forward, does this make things more difficult for UKTV?

Catherine Mackin: I just think you know what… with the march of Netflix, the march of Amazon; every year there is always going to be a player in the market that is new or has bigger budgets and it’s just part of the landscape that we work in. Next year, somebody else will have a different remit and they’ll be a really key competitor but I think we absolutely can compete.

Alexandra Finlay: Let’s face it, the UK market has always been a competitive one. From the studio perspective, the UK will always be a key factor in terms of their projections and their sales and we’re just continuing to work in that environment. To your point, the competition in this market will only be increasing over time, rather than abating and we need to keep abreast of that. We need to continue to ensure that alongside making sure that commercially we’re securing things, we’re also not making any compromises in terms of picking those shows which actually work best for our channels.

TVWise: Staying with Netflix and Amazon, they have been snapping up exclusive titles out of LA in recent years, but more often than not most of those shows also find a home on traditional television. Do you think there is value in these sorts of linear deals, such as the one you did with Tandem for Crossing Lines?

Crossing Lines - Season 2Alexandra Finlay: This will evolve over time, but still at this point in time linear broadcast can provide a real profile to a show, which is then valuable to a VOD service later on. So, absolutely, at the moment the two can work in tandem, although obviously they are becoming more and more ambitious. There is also an issue which speaks to the serialised vs procedural piece that we were touching on earlier. If you look at a show like Breaking Bad, when that was on linear services here in the UK, it didn’t particularly punch though in terms of ratings. There is something about that show and the serialised nature of it where it just works better as a binge watch. I do feel there will be certain kinds of content that lend themselves more appropriately to a linear or a non-linear environment and I think that’s something we need to bear in mind.

One of the shows that I love at the moment is the new Netflix show Bloodline. I can’t see that working in a linear environment. The first couple of episodes are incredibly slow, and rightfully so, because they want to build up this atmosphere and this character so that when it all starts to unravel it has that dramatic impact. In a linear environment, if that was playing once a week, I don’t know that people would sit with it in the same way. And I do think that we need to be cognisant of the fact that there may be content that may be better suited to one home or another.

TVWise: UKTV has been a real growth story in recent years, with record ratings, SOCI, record revenue and so on. How important were these acquisitions, alongside original commissions, in that growth story?

Catherine Mackin: Absolutely fundamental to each strategy. Very important, absolutely, because it is the mix that drives all of our channels. The bottom line is that acquisitions will still deliver exclusive content relatively quickly, because it’s made and you can get it off the shelf. Commissions are a much slower boil. So you have to have the mix.

Alexandra Finlay: That’s so important and you need to emphasise that. We are hugely hugely privileged to have content coming to us from BBC Worldwide and third party BBC content coming through. If you look at a channel like Dave, again BBC content is tremendously important there; it’s a large part of our peak schedule. What this has always been about for the three entertainment channels [Dave, Watch and Alibi] is having this mix of second run content and then increasingly first run content which sits alongside that. And then obviously with Watch and Dave you have the commissioning element as well.

So it is about that alchemy of taking the different elements from all those parts and finding the things that work best together. Obviously, we’re across what’s happening on the commissioning side because if there’s something with a premise which is very similar to a show from the US, obviously that’s not going to be something we prioritise. But if there is something that fits in a complimentary fashion, in a way that feels as though it offers something new but yet speaks to the same thing that our viewers are looking for, then that’s really important as well. So, it’s absolutely about that mix across the board.

Catherine Mackin: It’s also about delivering remits in the most intuitive and affordable and exciting way possible. So it’s a mixture of all of those content elements, with a fantastic press and marketing team as well. And about ambition, which is very much what UKTV is about. You know we’re incredibly ambitious. We’re always constantly focussed on what’s the next best thing? What do we have to deliver? Where do we go to next? And how do we take this strategy forward?

TVWise: UKTV is making a big push into originals at the moment and the latest focus of that push has been comedy, is that something you could see spill over into the acquisitions side of the business? Or put more succinctly, is a US sitcom buy on the cards?

Brooklyn Nine-NineCatherine Mackin: We would never discount that. We just look at everything constantly and we’re always doing iterations of our channels and our remits, so that could absolutely be in the frame, yes.

Alexandra Finlay: If you look at shows in the past, a show like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, for example, tonally feels like it could have been a fit for Dave and it is very much is about finding that comedy which is the right fit. We don’t have to buy a comedy, but if one came along that felt right for the channel, of course it would be something that we would be having a discussion about.

TVWise: One of the big trends from this past season was that more cable shows were breaking through. At UKTV have you found those serialised cable entries work better than network shows?

Alexandra Finlay: We shouldn’t be assuming first of all that cable shows are only serialised – one of our really valued shows on Alibi is Rizzoli & Isles, which is a TNT show and a procedural. One of the issues is, yes, that cable shows do tend to be more serialised which speaks to the earlier point that we were making which is that procedurals do tend to have more longevity as a general rule. If you look most broadly across the whole market any serialised show will effectively not repeat and will probably decline season-on-season as it returns and the problem is that doesn’t compare to the likes of CSI or Castle. For us, cable has always been just as important as network and it’s very very much about the shows.

TVWise: You recently acquired The Pinkertons for Drama as the channel’s first exclusive US series. Can you talk us through why that was a better fit for Drama than say Alibi? And what is a Drama show, as far as US acquisitions go, moving forward?

Alexandra Finlay: To the first point, the key element is that it is less of a core procedural piece, although obviously there are procedural and episodic elements. It does feel very much as though it’s about being in that period environment and having very much that period quality and that sense of place and that sense of time, which again spoke more to the content that we have on Drama.

There’s a nostalgic quality to the drama that we’re showing on the channel, which is things people are familiar with because they’ve seen it before, or it’s a familiar title, or a familiar character. So it’s less about, for example with Alibi having that core procedural remit, than it is about speaking to a particular tone. It’s a little bit softer.

The Pinkertons just felt right for Drama in that sense. And I think there are certain core period pieces on Alibi and The Pinkertons is outside of that core procedural bent. So there wasn’t a huge debate internally as to whether or not it would sit between one or the other. It was always very much viewed as something that was appropriate for Drama.