Brits break precedent

Needing to fill lineup, ITV will attend but BBC decides to stay away this time

LONDON — When Simon Shaps, ITV’s newly anointed director of TV, makes his debut at NATPE, he won’t need to worry about bumping into one of his main competitors.

That’s because the web’s long-standing rival, the BBC, is ignoring the opportunity to go shopping in Las Vegas.

Says the pubcaster’s acquisitions topper, George McGhee: “Although we do sometimes attend NATPE, this year we don’t feel there is any real need. After all, it is a long way to go for a three-day market. But that does not mean we won’t attend in 2007.”

As one of Europe’s leading commercial webs, ITV has a rapidly expanding portfolio of digital channels and a need to cut costs in what is an unforgiving U.K. market. More than two-thirds of homes are now hooked up to digital.

There is another reason, too, why Shaps, promoted from heading Granada’s production arm last fall, figured it was worth taking the trouble to go to NATPE wearing his buyer’s hat.

His new acquisitions chief, Jay Kandola, poached unexpectedly from Five in November, is unlikely to be at his side due to contractual problems.

Kandola, famed for buying “The Simpsons,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” for Channel 4, had barely gotten acquainted with her new staff when the call came from ITV.

Says Shaps: “I’m new in the job, so NATPE is a good opportunity to get up to speed with all the key studio heads and sellers. I can take a health check on the new shows and see what’s coming through as we head toward May and the L.A. Screenings.”

Having launched U.S. fare-filled ITV4 in the fall and a new kids’ weblet due to bow in February, ITV’s renewed appetite for Yank series and movies is making itself felt across broadcasters’ offices in London.

“Acquisitions are becoming a more important part of our business,” Shaps emphasizes. “It’s partly, but not exclusively, a function of having more channels.”

There is also that key question of economics.

“As we’ve seen from ‘Rome’ (an HBO-BBC co-production), there’s a greater economic incentive for collaboration on premium drama, so I’ll be exploring different types of co-production and partnership opportunities at NATPE,” he adds.

While the BBC’s buying team is staying put in London, satcaster BSkyB will be doing the rounds at NATPE.

In terms of traditional programming, L.A.-based acquisitions topper Rebecca Segal is repping the European paybox in Vegas while two of her colleagues from Blighty, business development mavens Stephen Nuttall and Neil Martin, are flying in to assess content from a new-media perspective.

Sky Networks’ deputy managing director Sophie Turner-Laing explains, “A lot of our focus is on broadband rather than ‘I need a drama for the 9 p.m. slot.’ Stephen and Neil are attending to see how things are shaping up in the new pipe. The U.K. is ahead of the U.S. in finding alternative platforms like mobile and broadband, and I am sure that they will be talking to like-minded producers and content owners.”

With BSkyB set to roll out Blighty’s first HD TV service in the first half of 2006, Segal will be on the lookout for shows shot in the new standard.

As for Euro sellers making the trek to Vegas, BBC Worldwide will be there in force. It’s likely that deputy CEO Mike Phillips, who retires in the spring, will be traveling to Vegas.

“The BBC takes its relationships with the big American players very seriously,” says Phillips, “Mark Thompson (the BBC director general) was recently out in L.A. with our new media head, Ashley Highfield. They had meetings with Steve Jobs and Michael Lynton. What’s great about NATPE is that all the key people are in one place, and there’s time to sit down and have a constructive conversation.”

At the sharp end of BBC Worldwide’s sales effort is Jose Sanchez, regional TV sales director for Latin America, whose NATPE slate features the web’s latest natural history blockbuster, “Planet Earth,” and action-adventure saga “Blackbeard, the Real Pirates of the Caribbean,” alongside drama titles such as “Snow Queen” and the revived “Doctor Who.”

Says Sanchez: “Our strap line at NATPE is, ‘See the world through BBC eyes — taking you to old worlds, new worlds and undiscovered worlds.’ A lot of the fare we’re distributing features state-of-the-art production values that, I think, are unique to the BBC. We expect to be concluding some major deals at NATPE with our clients in Latin America and with some of the regional Hispanic broadcasters in the U.S.”

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