While there is a select group of UK broadcasters who tend the rule the roost when it comes to US acquisitions (Sky, Channel 4, Channel 5 and, increasingly, UKTV), there are a select number of multi-channels who are nevertheless steady buyers of exclusive US content from the major Hollywood Studios.
One such broadcaster is A+E Networks UK, who operate a number of channel brands on these shores, such as Lifetime UK and History UK. Those two channels largely follow the lead of their US cousins when it comes to their programming strategy but more and more UK execs are branching out with third party acquisitions and local commissions – the most high profile of which have been Dance Mums UK and Britain’s Next Top Model, both for Lifetime UK.
Some of the recent third party acquisitions saw Lifetime UK pick up both Girlfriend’s Guide To Divorce and The Slap. Other scripted dramas to have been snapped up by the channel since Lifetime launched last year have included Witches Of East End, The Client List and Damages; while History UK is the linear home to Vikings and has recently swooped for such dramas as Gangland Undercover, Sons Of Liberty and Black Sails.
But what exactly is the company’s strategy when it comes to US scripted acquisitions? Are there any ambitions for comedy on Lifetime UK? How important are the respective channel brands when it comes to acquisitions? And what exactly is it that A+E Networks UK is looking for in a new drama for either Lifetime UK and/or History UK?
TVWise spoke with Heather Jones, who was recently promoted to the position of Senior Vice-President for Content & Creative, and leads the programming team at A+E Networks UK to get an answer to these questions and many more.
TVWise: How would you describe the acquisitions strategy when it comes to scripted for the UK channels?
Heather Jones: Firstly, we don’t need a lot of volume, because we have a big output deal with A+E in the U.S. for our unscripted, we also get a first look at scripted as well. I don’t have massive gaps in my schedule where I go ‘I absolutely have to have a drama at nine o’clock every night for six months of the year’. So, for me it’s really about just selecting the pieces that I think add a different layer and a different kind of flavour and tone to the channels. So I don’t have a prescriptive number of hours, I just have a need to make sure that we provide a breadth of offering, particularly across History and Lifetime, that means the scripted content is very on brand for us and stands out and is something for us to hang our marketing hats on. Scripted for us very often is about having pieces that are noisy, that will look great on either a TV ad or a poster. I am always looking for a scripted show that you can definitely do an above-the-line campaign about.
TVWise: How Important are the individual scripted brands when it comes to the acquisitions strategy?
Heather Jones: We get first look at anything that A+E Networks retains the rights to and obviously since they launched A+E Studio a couple years ago the fruits of that are starting to come through now. We’ve had our first scripted show for Lifetime in UnREAL, we’ve had Sons Of Liberty and Gangland Undercover for History, so they’re just starting to come through and I anticipate we’ll get anything between two and five scripted shows across our group of networks on an annual basis. That makes things a lot more straight forward because obviously they are commissioned with that home brand in mind. Something like Vikings for example is very on brand in terms of the target audience and all those brand filters that go along with it. So [the brands are] incredibly important.
Lifetime is clearly a female leaning entertainment network with a brand that is uplifting and positive and fun and about entertainment. It’s fast moving as well, so we can’t have dramas that are too languishing. Our scripted dramas normally play at ten o’clock. We have our big reality shows that play at nine and they tend to be quite fast moving. So if you got either Real Housewives of Dance Moms or Little Women as a lead in, you can’t then go into something like The Affair. It’s too big of a gear change. They have to have the right pace, the right tone, the right energy and the right noise for both History and Lifetime. But one is male leaning and the other is more female leaning.
TVWise: What have been your biggest hits since Lifetime launched?
Heather Jones: Scripted, our biggest hit was definitely the one we launched with, which was Witched Of East End. That only ran for two seasons, but it was a really big hit for us. The Client List also did well for us. More recently we had Blue and that was quite interesting actually, because that’s an example of us looking outside the obvious places to pick up scripted dramas, where everything is so competitive if you’re looking at the big network shows. It was actually originally commissioned as short-form drama by Hulu. Hulu commissioned it short-form, it did really well, they made quite a lot of it and then it was packaged up as hour-long dramas. That’s the kind of places that I imagine the Sky1s and the Channel 4s are not looking at to source scripted drama. But Blue did well for us and also was clearly at a much lower price-point than these big network dramas.
Success also is relative to what you pay. Witches Of East End was massive, it was also quite expensive. Blue was not as big as Witches, it did very well, but was much cheaper. It depends on the metrics you are looking at, but those probably are the big three scripted pieces I would note since we launched. Damages did quite well for us as well and certainly brought in that more upmarket audience. On the unscripted side, Dance Moms is our biggest Lifetime branded hit and the UK spin-off is huge for us. And probably Real Housewives, especially Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills. We have three of the Real Housewives series as premieres in the UK and they still deliver the numbers for us. We’ve got some of the new brands coming to us from Lifetime, like Little Women and the various spin-offs. Those are the big three unscripted franchises.
TVWise: The UK has always been a highly competitive market, does the level of competition make it harder to buy for Lifetime and History, specifically considering where first window on one of their original dramas has gone to a rival? Or are you happy with the linear broadcast window?
Heather Jones: I think for the time being, to be first linear is the most important thing. I think this will change over time and also there is a difference between Amazon and Netflix. I don’t know how comfortable I’d be being first linear after Netflix, because after all we’re a pay TV broadcaster and we need to be making sure that we provide Sky with a certain level of exclusivity or completely new customers. What happened for us with Vikings is that Amazon created some awareness of the Vikings brand, but in terms of the crossover of customers with Sky, clearly there can’t have been a huge amount because so many people watched Vikings on History. I think we have a period of time to exploit that first linear opportunity that’s post-an-Amazon-window as opposed to post-a-Netflix-window. Part of the difference being that in cases where Netflix don’t retain the rights, they tend to have a minimum of a two-year hold-back, by which time it feels very old; whereas with Amazon there’s just a one year hold-back, so both Vikings and Black Sails are only one year behind the Amazon premieres.
That’s worked OK for us. It means it’s a bit more affordable, it means there’s certain broadcasters you’re not having to pitch against because they don’t want to have a shared piece of content with a non-linear competitor, that’s been helpful for us. The big issues is the big network/studio shows where, if it’s a show that one of the Sky channels or terrestrial channels are really interested in, we’re out of the game. But that’s fine because the good news is that there is something like 64 networks commissioning scripted, so there is so much product to go around. I could go along to a Warner Bros. screening and watch a superhero show and go ‘Wow, the History audience would love that’, but it’s probably going to go to Sky or Channel 4. But then there’s all the cable network shows that are being made… not just the A&E network, but all the TNTs, AMCs and Syfys. There’s so many cable networks commissioning scripted that there are enough things to go round and certainly we haven’t struggled to identify titles that would be right for either Lifetime or History, and tie them up.
TVWise: Drama has been a key element of Lifetime UK’s schedule since launch, but there is a huge amount of non-scripted and an increasing number of local commissions on the slate. How important has U.S. scripted been to the channel’s success?
Heather Jones: I think they’ve been hugely important, but the difference is in low volumes. We don’t need a lot of drama to make a noise with drama. Lifetime as a brand is built on having the three different pillars, and we’re quite unique in the market because of that. We are unscripted, scripted and movies, all in different proportions. Most of the schedule is unscripted; we have primetime and daytime blocks of movies; and then we have scripted at moments throughout the year, but definitely not more than one a quarter. In volume terms, they don’t take up a lot of the schedule, we only buy them when we think they’re right. But brand wise they are really important, because they are the things we use quite often to lead our marketing campaigns.
TVWise: The UK Lifetime channel has recently done a number of third party deals for shows like Rosemary’s Baby and most recently Girlfriends’ Guide To Divorce. I think it’s clear you’re looking to expand beyond just what the U.S. network does, can you talk us through what you’re looking for in a drama?
Heather Jones: Girlfriends Guide is probably the best example. As I referred to earlier, the scripted shows have to sit side-by-side with our existing reality slate. Our biggest reality show at the moment is Real Housewives and Girlfriends Guide To Divorce was commissioned by Bravo in the U.S. to be the scripted partner piece to Real Housewives, so for us it was a really natural fit because these shows were designed to sit next to each other in the schedule. We definitely look for shows that in terms of the tone and the pace are aligned with what the unscripted shows are doing as well.
The other thing we look for is… it’s not just about the pace, the tone and how it sits with the reality shows, also there have to be, for Lifetime, really strong female characters. In the same way that, for History, there have to be really strong male characters and very positive ones too. The shows have to have talkability, they have to be the kind of dramas that are noisy. We can’t have gentle dramas, we can’t just have a cop show that feels like it fits but is not really going to get people talking in the office the next day. A really great title helps enormously and that’s partly why I think Girlfriends Guide To Divorce is interesting, because you can’t help but stop when you see that title on the EPG, even if you haven’t seen any marketing around it. For both History and Lifetime, the dramas are always shamelessly entertaining, they’re a romp all the way throughout. They are not slow and thoughtful, they tend to be very high energy, with high entertainment values.
TVWise: You said you don’t need a lot of volume when it comes to drama, is there room for more shows on the channel in the year ahead?
Heather Jones: I think we have, for both History and Lifetime. We’d be able to find room for one more scripted drama, outside of what we already have through our output deal and what we’ve already picked up. But we don’t have to pick that up, so we’re in the nice position whereby if the right thing comes along at the right price, we have space for one more for each, but that’s it right now. For Lifetime, we picked up two seasons of Girlfriends Guide To Divorce, plus we picked up The Slap, the NBC network drama, as part of that same deal. On History we’ve got more Vikings coming through because that’s a life-of-series deal, we’ve got Black Sails, we’ve got Gangland Undercover, we’ve just had Sons Of Liberty, and there’s a few others that we’re looking at as part of the A+E Studios output deal. We’ve already got quite a lot to play with.
TVWise: Assuming it was on brand, is comedy an area you have considered looking at for Lifetime UK?
Heather Jones: Yeah, we absolutely would. I am very biased towards comedy, because I used to run Paramount Comedy, so I know how effective comedy is in a schedule. The other thing about comedy is that it repeats incredibly well. I would love to have a comedy block on Lifetime. The problem is you can’t just buy one comedy and plonk it in the schedule. You have to have a whole strategy around it. We would need to find two or three new comedies, plus possibly build in some library as well. To be honest, I just haven’t seen enough new comedies out there that I would want to package together, along with some library, to do it that meaningfully. We are probably two years away from having a comedy block on Lifetime, but absolutely that’s on the horizon at some stage.
At the LA Screenings this year, there was a couple I quite liked, but again they weren’t the strong and distinctive and noisy shows that would allow you to go out with a big campaign saying “Lifetime now brings you comedy”. I’m still waiting to see one of those titles in the way that when I was at Paramount when we moved from being a library channel to being first run comedy, I picked up Two And A Half Men and having Charlie Sheen at the front of that, closely followed by South Park, we had two shows that felt like they were making a difference to our channel brand. That is the sort of thing that I need to have for Lifetime; a minimum of two first run comedies and probably a couple of library comedies as well, to really be playing properly in the comedy space. People have made that mistake before of just dropping comedy into a schedule where people are just used to seeing drama and reality, and it’s just too much of a gear change for the viewer. You need to build up the expectation, be really clear about what your strategy is and deliver on it properly.
TVWise: On History UK, the recent deal for Black Sails was widely viewed a surprise acquisition. Was that a signal you are looking at historical period pieces outside of what the US network is commissioning?
Heather Jones: Yes, we absolutely are. Again, we don’t need many and Black Sails was kind of opportunistic because we already had Vikings, Gangland Undercover and a couple of others. But we became aware that that was going to be on the market and we went ‘Wow, we’ve already got Vikings can you imagine if we had pirates as well? So that was quite an opportunistic buy and brilliantly it feels like it fits really naturally with our brand. It doesn’t mean that we can’t look outside of just what the US History network is commissioning. I looked at Tut for example, which went to Channel 5, and that possible would have sat OK for us. We’ve considered shows like AD, which is a follow-up to The Bible, which was originally commissioned for History. So absolutely, if they are historical pieces and we feel they have the right tone and pace as the shows that we already play on History in terms of scripted then we definitely would look.
TVWise: Presently, the rights to The X-Files are with A+E Networks UK over here, is the new six episode revival something you could see coming to one of your channels?
Heather Jones: We might look at it. The X-Files for us is daytime filler rather than a key piece of content. It’s not like it’s a brand that is heavily associated with us so I don’t feel the need to go ‘Oh, people already see that on one our channels so we need to go pick that up’. I’ll look at it, but I’m not necessarily intending that that should be our next big hit, no. I think I’ll look at it, see if it feels like it might fit and if it does I’ll put an offer in. But I’m not that gung ho on it.
TVWise: Speaking of The X-Files, there has been a shift to event and limited run programming, is that a problem for you or are you OK with picking up a show with a short life-span?
Heather Jones: It depends. To be honest, we have made them work for us and we did a really interesting piece of research before we launched Lifetime about viewers’ appetite for drama. One of the things that came through – as we all know as viewers – is that people have a finite capacity for how many dramas they can watch at any one time. Sometimes, when they are made aware that this drama is 22 hours long and it been commissioned for a further two seasons, that is not necessarily a positive message because sometimes the viewers response is “Oh my god, I don’t have that much time in my life”. In fact of the things that came back in our research was that if you have event programming that is six, or eight or ten hours and you know it’s never going to be more than that, be really clear with the viewer about that because they may be more inclined to commit to it because it doesn’t threaten their long term commitment to the other dramas they already have on the PVR like Game Of Thrones or Madam Secretary.
People will create a space for it in their life if they know there is a finite amount of them. We’ve exploited that quite successfully so far, it hasn’t been a problem for us. Obviously, it’s nice to have a returner and something with a brand like The X-Files that’s something you’d want to keep coming. I think if it’s an event piece that lends itself to it, so something like The Slap; it is a dramatization of a book, it only works as a one-off event series and that makes sense and the audience buys into it. But if it’s a brand that people are familiar with as being a long running series or where the storyline feels like it could and should run and run. Essentially, if the narrative justifies it, I’ve got no problem buying it and selling it to the viewers as a short run. Lifetime has been really successful with miniseries in the US and its something we intend to keep doing.