Reality replaces gaps caused by writers strike

LONDON – Richard Woolfe, the ambitious program head at U.K. multichannel web Sky, realized back in January that he had an urgent problem.

With no end in sight to the Writers Guild of America strike, Woolfe (who had made his mark at Sky One by poaching “Lost” from terrestrial rival Channel 4 for a reported $40 million) needed to plug some big holes in his schedules — or risk irritating auds by upping the repeat count further.

Under normal circumstances, subscribers to Sky One, pay box BSkyB’s flagship entertainment web, would have been grazing on a winter viewing menu full of U.S. fodder. But with U.S. TV production redlighted, there was no way Woolfe could count on having a full contingent of those channel-defining shows.

“There were reduced numbers on ‘Lost,’ ‘Prison Break’ and ‘Bones,’ while we’d lost an entire series of ’24,’ ” he recalls. “In other words, I realized that if we were not going to have the best of U.S. drama, we had to make alternative plans.”

Woolfe’s headache turned out to be a pick-me-up for Blighty’s independent producers, as he and his team fast-tracked some locally produced shows waiting to be moved forward from his development slate.

“Essentially, this was unscripted stuff that our viewers will see in the next few months — factual shows, entertainment programming and event-led shows,” he explains.

One of the most high-profile shows he’s commissioned is a revival of trial-of-strength skein “Gladiators,” based on the revamped “American Gladiators,” to bow on Sky One in May.

Other titles greenlighted by Sky to fill in the gaps include RDF Media’s gameshow “Don’t Forget the Lyrics!,” aired by Fox in the U.S., and a season of list shows with titles like “Top 50 Families of All Time.”

Over at Channel 4, where titles like “Desperate Housewives” and “Ugly Betty” help drive the schedule, director of television Kevin Lygo also had to deal with the impact of the Hollywood shutdown.

“I’d say that our schedules were interrupted, rather than crippled, by what was happening in the U.S,” he recounts. “To fill the gaps, we needed fast-turn shows, so we commissioned a number of factual shows to make up the shortfall caused by broken runs of ‘Ugly Betty’ and the delayed start of ‘Desperate Housewives.’ “

Meanwhile, Lygo’s acquisitions team snapped up several reality shows, including the U.S. version of “Big Brother,” to keep afloat its sister web, youth-skewed E4.

“If the strike hadn’t ended when it did, E4 would have been in dire straits,” a Channel 4 topper admits.

Now that the U.S. production machine is again up and running, will there be a long-term trend in favor of more domestic production in the U.K. at the cost of imports? Frankly, there is no straightforward, simple answer. In an uncertain economic climate, a lot of the decisions will come down to cost calculations.

“If we find a commissioned show that works better than the acquired one it has replaced, we are likely to stay with that,” says Channel 4 acquisitions topper Jeff Ford.

He is already working out how best to respond to a smaller acquisitions budget, cut by 20% over the next five years (a loss of $70 million), without alienating sellers.

The smaller spend on U.S. shows is being driven by CEO Andy Duncan, who is in the midst of a campaign to persuade regulators and politicians that Channel 4 needs a public subsidy.

To help beef up the broadcaster’s standing as a pubcaster, more coin is being plowed into areas such as news, documentaries and children’s shows. This policy was in place before the writers strike, but it is possible that a less acquisitions-hungry Channel 4 could encourage rivals to try harder to secure the kind of U.S. shows that Ford previously would have snapped up.

One thing’s for sure: As BBC acquisitions chief George McGhee points out, the strike provided a salutary reminder that while most U.S. shows still provide good value for the money, webheads have no control over what happens to them should production cease.

“Maybe the strike will stop people putting all their eggs in one basket,” he suggests. “When you commission a show, you’re in control; … one of the problems of being so reliant on U.S. programs is that you’ve got no say in the matter when problems occur.”

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more