Brits step up for right fare

LONDON — The U.K. is not as acquisition-reliant as other Euro territories. But when the right show comes along, broadcasters will pay top dollar, says the BBC’s head buyer, Sophie Turner-Laing.

A case in point is “The Simpsons,” which Channel 4 recently grabbed from its long-term terrestrial home on the BBC.

Channel 4 may have forked over $1 million an episode for the rights to the series to beat a rival offer from Channel 5. The BBC, which dropped out of the bidding early on, is believed to have paid “only” $125,000 per episode for the Fox show.

Despite the worst ad recession since the beginning of commercial TV in the 1950s, British broadcasters are keeping money aside for must-buy shows.

ITV has maintained its programming spending in the face of a 12% revenue downturn. Controller of acquisitions Jeremy Boulton says: “Our budget has been set for a good, long time, and as such there are monies there. If we think it’s right for the ITV schedule then we go out and buy it.”

Imports are, however, few and far between on the main networks, BBC1 and ITV. With the exception of movies, primetime is all homegrown.

Apart from “The Simpsons,” BBC2 has early evening niches for “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Star Trek” skeins, and has just launched “24” and a new season of “Malcolm in the Middle” in prime.

A new season of “The West Wing” launched on Channel 4 in March and the network is still getting some of its best audiences with “ER,” “Friends” and “Frasier.”

Relative newcomer Channel 5, boosted by programming investment from its parent company RTL, has built an improving sked around Oz soap “Home and Away” and on Saturdays airs “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and “Law & Order.”

The BBC’s deal with DreamWorks — renewed last year — is the only output deal currently running in the U.K.

Since all the networks air movies in primetime, however, word is that more movie deals may well be closed on the Croisette. The BBC’s deal with DreamWorks — renewed last year — is the only output deal currently running in the U.K.

“We don’t have any output deals,” says ITV’s Boulton. “That’s not to say that if the right thing came along, we wouldn’t consider it.”

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