FOX UK's Toby Etheridge Talks Acquisitions Strategy, Spin-Offs, 'Agent Carter', Unscripted Ambitions & More (Q&A) – TVWise

Being the home to first run episodes of ratings juggernauts The Walking Dead and NCIS, FOX UK has been the envy of many of their competitors in recent years.
The channel, owned and operated by Fox International Channels, has been undergoing an evolution of late. FIC has been funnelling more cash into the UK business, which saw the flagship entertainment channel re-brand from FX UK to FOX UK in 2013, followed by a more recent re-brand, which was part of a wider move by FIC to unite their FOX channels in more than 125 countries under one brand.
Beyond these brand evolutions, the increased spend and evolution has been apparent in recent programming moves. From an original commissioning push in 2013, to landing Steven Bochco’s red hot TNT series Murder In The First, FX’s geo-political thriller Tyrant, and the recent deal for high-profile network show Backstrom.
But, arguably, it was FOX UK’s multi-year licensing agreement with Disney Media Distribution for Marvel’s Agent Carter which is the biggest signal of their evolution. The glossy show was something of a gamble, but one that paid off with Carter drawing huge overnight ratings (more than 250K viewers). The audience for the series opener subsequently grew to more than 1 million after seven days of consolidation, including repeats.
Head of Programming and Scheduling Toby Etheridge, who has been with the broadcaster for the better part of a decade, has been one of the key architects behind these moves and brokered all of the aforementioned programming deals with a vast array of international distributors. In a recent interview with TVWise the exec also revealed that a key area of focus at FOX UK is on-demand viewing.
“We do well in on-demand, whether that’s catch up or box-sets”, he said. “It’s something that we are particularly proud of actually. We’re doing more and more box-sets and lovely modern stuff like that. Ahead of Tyrant, we’re going to have a box-set of Tyrant [season] one and ahead of The Walking Dead, we’ll have a box-set of The Walking Dead. That’s a strategy in its own right”.
An admitted fan of Showtime’s The Affair, Toby Etheridge also lays effusive praise on competitor Sky Atlantic, saying “I admire what they do”; before quipping that he would have liked to have secured Atlantic’s top rated acquisition Game Of Thrones for FOX UK. In the below interview, he also opens up about strategy at FOX UK, the effect of FIC’s global strategy and direction on a local level, the Agent Carter deal, Fear The Walking Dead, plans for commissions, unscripted fare and much more.
TVWise: How would you describe the acquisitions strategy at FOX UK?
Toby Etheridge: Well, it’s ever evolving. It wasn’t that long ago that the channel was FX and it wasn’t that long ago that the channel was at 164 on Sky. We’ve moved up the EPG, we’ve rebranded from FX to FOX. Everything we’ve done during then and since then has been to broaden out the channel out, to make it bigger, to make it live up to the name FOX, really. FOX means something different than FX. When the channel was FX we were this plucky little underdog, we could take risks, we could carry some niche content. FOX is not that at all. The spirit of FOX is similar to the spirit of Fox in the States; it’s break-through, cut through, it’s ground-breaking, it’s entertaining, it’s broad, it’s mainstream. Those are our aspirations these days. Obviously we live in a marketplace where there’s Sky1, and there’s E4, and also ITV2 – all these really bigger, badder channels that live in that space with competitive budgets. It’s a challenge but so far so good. We’ve achieved ratings growth year-on-year since the channel was born, for eleven years straight it’s grown. And most recently, Marvel’s Agent Carter came in with whopping overnights, so that’s the path that we’re on.
TVWise Does the complexity and level of competition in the UK make it harder for you? Especially considering the kinds of shows FIC airs in other key territories, such as The Simpsons and most recently Empire, both of which are with other UK broadcasters…
Toby Etheridge: A lot of it is down to when the Fox channel in those different markets launched. Often in some of the other territories where they have The Simpsons, they’re longer established or they launched in a market that was not so well developed. Eleven years ago pretty much every channel that exists out there now was already up and running, plus channels like Bravo which sadly are no longer. But we came at a time when those kinds of shows were well locked up, so from a standing start we’ve achieved what we’ve achieved. That’s included acquiring Family Guy, American Dad and NCIS on the open market in a competitive situation. We’ve done alright. We don’t have The Simpsons, but we have a lot of good stuff.
TVWise: Between the recent global branding, FIC’s worldwide deals for shows like Da Vinci’s Demons and Wayward Pines, and the rise of Fox International Studios (who are behind Robert Kirkman’s Outcast), how much freedom does that give you on a local level with acquisitions?
Toby Etheridge: It does slightly limit the freedom that we have on a local level, but the direction of the group globally, particularly with Fox International Studios, its editorial strategy and direction is perfectly aligned with what we are. What that strategy delivers to us, the UK channel, is shows that potentially we couldn’t get on the open market. So it gives us a competitive advantage, it’s not a negative in any sense of the word, it’s a pure positive. Just look at The Walking Dead and Wayward Pines. These are big shows, and in the case of Wayward a network show. And on Outcast, the U.S. partner is Cinemax, which is HBO for all intents and purposes. It’s a really great strategy for us.
TVWise: What have been your biggest hits?
Toby Etheridge: The Walking Dead is head and shoulders the biggest thing on the channel, its weekly viewership is sometimes nudging two million. NCIS is in growth, still, after all these years. It’s averaging 1.2-1.3 million per week. And even more recently Wayward Pines, which is 800-900k strong. Wayward Pines is bigger than True Blood was and bigger than Dexter was for us. So doing pretty good. And we have high hopes for Agent Carter. Obviously it’s only been one week and we’ve got all the other episodes to come. I’m really pleased with that.
TVWise: Following that first rebrand from FX to FOX UK, there was an emphasis on local commissions, with shows like Meet The Russians. Is that still a focus, or are you back to being more of an acquisitions driven channel?
Toby Etheridge: It’s much more acquisitions focused again. It’s what we’re known for and it’s what we do best. We’re trying to focus down on that. Interestingly, just as an aside, the first acquisition that we announced when we did rebrand from FX to FOX was Louie, which obviously is an FX series. The reason that we did that was deliberate and it was to reassure all our loyal FX fans that we were still the same channel, but we were just going to do more. Louie was the proof to everyone that we were still the same people. Still the same people running the channel.
TVWise: There was also something of a push into comedy. The channel does really well with the Seth MacFarlane animated series from the Fox network, but the live-action efforts you’ve acquired haven’t rated as well. So is live action comedy still an area you are looking at?
Toby Etheridge: The strategy is to assess every show on its own merits and to work out how closely aligned it is to the audiences we have on our channel. So it could be a comedy, it could be a drama, but we don’t want to rule anything out at any point in time really. But like you say the animation, the Seth MacFarlane animation is a really key part of what the channel is. We came through this new deal, where Family Guy and American Dad are in the process of moving from the BBC to ITV. We successfully retained our position on that, which is first run on American Dad and second run on Family Guy, and part of that involves Bordertown as well. We’re obviously thrilled to retain it and we’re in the same position that we have always been.
TVWise: If we could talk about Agent Carter. When it was announced it was viewed as something of a surprise acquisition, especially when stacked up against some of the edgier fare that the channel is known for. And there has also been talk that this was the first step in a shift in strategy at FOX UK, can you talk us through that?
Toby Etheridge: I hope so. Like you were saying earlier, a lot of out shows do return so it’s difficult to steer it very quickly in a particular direction, not that we’d want to steer away from all the shows that do return. But not everything is that edgy; we have NCIS, Murder In The First and we have a show called The Fixer, which we have in September. Going forward I think the ambition is to be broader, but still true to the core spirit of what the channel is and what everyone knows the channel to be. What we don’t want to do is to encroach on anyone else’s space. We want to take what we’ve got and grow it bigger, we don’t want to sort of move it onto someone else’s patch.
TVWise: Several months ago you did a deal with Endemol for Freak Show, was that a signal that you are looking at unscripted or was that more a case of it being a perfect companion piece for that season of American Horror Story?
Toby Etheridge: Actually, it was both, it was exactly both. Part of what broadening the channel out does mean is not just scripted drama and comedy, in whatever guise that takes. The fact that it did fit so perfectly with that season of American Horror just made it a kind of obvious thing to do. We don’t have any on-going plans in that direction, it’s more opportunistic, where there is a nice tie-in. We’re always keeping our ears to the ground for that kind of stuff.
TVWise: The LA Screenings were several weeks ago now, what were some of the key trends you picked up on?
Toby Etheridge: Aside from the obvious ones of more DC stuff.… it was a good spread, I think it was a pretty solid year all round for all of the studios. But the most interesting thing I think was that there’s more and more stuff not presented in LA, which is great. There’s things to come, things that haven’t been made yet. That’s because of straight-to-series orders. They don’t make pilots for these things, so they don’t deliver for the upfronts. There’s a whole load of screenings still to come through the year and for really good sounding titles as well. Whether that’s Heroes, or Shades Of Blue, or X-Files, or Scream Queens, or Bastard Executioner, or American Crime Story – there’s loads everywhere. Then of the good pilots that were presented, a lot of them are being recast. So what you see in LA is really only half the picture for the year’s programming.
TVWise: So the move to year-round commissioning state-side has been helpful?
Toby Etheridge: Yeah, it is helpful for us. It sort of cuts both ways. Sometimes it’s useful to see it all and then compete with everyone for it and then you’ve got your year locked down, but this way you can pick and choose as they turn up. There is a certain amount of planning… you sort of have to rely on guesswork more. You have assess what might be good coming through and sort of keep your powder dry for that.
TVWise: An on-going trend which continued this year was a reliance on spin-offs. When you go to LA, if you’ve got the parent series, do you give the spin-offs extra consideration or do they really have to stand on their own merits?
Toby Etheridge: I think you have to give it some extra consideration. If you’ve got the audience for the main show on the channel then it’s natural to look long and hard at the spin-off.
TVWise: That being the case, had it been open to you would have wanted Fear The Walking Dead?
Toby Etheridge: Yes I suppose is the honest answer. [Laughs] But we’re in the lucky position of having Outcast already locked and confirmed. It’s a legitimate Kirkman adaptation of a Kirkman comic and it’s good, it’s really good. I mean on Fear The Walking Dead, good luck to [AMC], what more can I say? It’s a great strategy, going day and date with a Zombie show.
TVWise: With a high volume of returning series, is there a lot of room on your schedules for new acquisitions?
Toby Etheridge: We’ve got Outcast coming through from the global acquisitions and global production side of things. But yes, we’ve got space for something else. We’ll have to see how it pans out. There are a certain number of renewals still to be confirmed. We don’t know if Murder In The First is coming back for a third [season], or Tyrant is coming back for a third [season], or American Horror Story is coming back for a sixth [season]. You have to assume so, but there’s a certain amount of flexibility.