United Kingdom: Buyers may lose enthusiasm for skeins’ high prices

U.S. shows occupy top-shelf space

United Kingdom

The Brits have set the international TV market on fire, but the big question is, Will it last?

Judging by the whooping pricetag — £975,000 ($1.8 million) an episode for recent renewals on “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” forked out by Sky One and Channel 4, respectively — the answer should be an emphatic yes.

But the truth is more complex.

As more and more U.S. skeins bought by eager Brits are cancelled by U.S. networks — “Smith” (acquired by ITV) and “Studio 60” (acquired by Channel 4) among them — there are signs that buyers may be losing their enthusiasm for paying inflated prices for Yank fare.

“By the time next year’s Screenings come round I think it will be a buyer’s market again,” predicts ITV’s acquisitions topper Jay Kandola, who has worked as a buyer for all the main U.K. terrestrial webs.

This may be wishful thinking on Kandola’s part — she recently bid unsuccessfully for seasons three and four of “Desperate Housewives” — but despite the frenzy to nab the hottest shows, of the five main British terrestrial webs, only Channel 4 and Five regularly schedule U.S. shows in primetime.

The two biggest networks, BBC 1 and ITV 1, remain no go areas for U.S. fare as far as peaktime is concerned and that’s the way it’s been for a decade.

“Six Degrees,” bought by Kandola, has been earmarked for a primetime slot on ITV 1 but no firm date has yet been fixed.

With so much pressure on the Beeb to spend all its loot on home-grown production, flagship web BBC 1 has not transmitted a hit U.S. skein in peak time since “The X Files.”

What has generally driven up prices in the U.K. is the fierce competition between Channel 4 and Five, and the bigger multi-channel players like Sky and the Flextech-owned webs led by Living TV.

ITV spin-off web ITV 2 (which launched “Entourage” this fall to critical acclaim but disappointing ratings) also has a big appetite for U.S. fare. One of ITV 2’s most popular shows is Warner Bros. “Supernatural.”

The “CSI” franchise is a key ingredient of Five’s schedule, with “CSI: Miami” regularly topping its ratings with an audience share of 12%.

Sky One’s schedule relies heavily on U.S. drama, but “The Simpsons” remains the web’s most popular show. Cult fare like “24” and “Weeds” are helping take the web’s demos upscale.

“U.S TV is going through a great creative period,” says newly appointed head of acquisitions at Sky One David Smyth, responsible for poaching “Lost” from Channel 4.

“It is a very tough market to launch shows in and gain traction so having a proven hit like ‘Lost’ makes a great deal of sense for us,” he says.

“Those opportunities don’t come along very often. What we paid for ‘Lost’ doesn’t mean that prices will go even higher for the top shows,” he insists.

“Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” may have created new benchmarks for what U.K. webs are prepared to shell out for proven successes, but at the other end of the scale bargains can still be found.

One of the smartest deals in recent months was U.K. Sci Fi Channel’s purchase of “Heroes,” which is performing strongly and sold for $200,000 an episode, a steal by today’s standards.

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