Burned Brits hide their wallets

LONDON — Are U.K. broadcasters falling out of love with U.S. fare? The short answer is no.

There is, however, a mood of caution affecting British buyers as they prepare for the annual upscale hike to the L.A. Screenings.

Purse strings are tightening in Blighty. The advertising market remains tough, with new media continuing to threaten webs’ revenue streams.

And, crucially, a sellers’ market that led Channel 4 and Sky to pay record license fees last fall is preoccupying buyers — as, too, is the fact that so many shows bought by British webs a year ago tanked.

No wonder renewals on vets “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” set back Channel 4 and Sky north of $1.5 million an episode respectively. They are that rare thing — tried-and-tested, channel-defining hits.

“Frankly, everyone in the U.K. has less money to spend on new shows,” says ITV’s director of acquisitions Jay Kandola.

“We will spend less money at this year’s screenings is my guess,” echoes C4 program topper Kevin Lygo.

Lygo claims there is little unusual in the high failure rate attached to the shows C4 nabbed in 2006 — fare like the hugely hyped Aaron Sorkin skein “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” still to air in Blighty.

Rivals ITV and Five similarly caught a cold by snatching shows that subsequently bombed, such as “Smith,” axed after three episodes, and “Vanished,” which has lived up to its name.

“There was a feeding frenzy by the Brits at last year’s Screenings,” says one buyer, “because everyone was afraid of missing out on the next big thing.

“But only two shows took off: ‘Heroes’ (acquired by niche channel Sci Fi) and ‘Ugly Betty,’ and ‘Betty’ hasn’t done as well for Channel 4 as some of their other big U.S. hits.”

However, while the major U.K. broadcasters are thinking of hedging their bets in L.A., multichannel players like UKTV — now co-owned by cable operator Virgin Media — sound more bullish.

Says UKTV’s new CEO, David Abraham, who recently returned to London following a spell at Discovery in Washington: “This is the third year UKTV has been at L.A. actively seeking big comedies and dramas that attract a wider audience,” such as previous acquisitions “Shark,” “Prison Break” and, exclusively to UKTV, “The New Adventures of Old Christine.” “We are now looking to build on those.”

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