U.K.’s Channel 4 kills ‘Big Brother’

Show's exit offers opportunites for distributors

U.K. pubcaster Channel 4 confirmed Wednesday that it is dropping “Big Brother” after the 2010 season.

C4 director of television Kevin Lygo paid tribute to the iconic reality show that bowed in 2000 and was watched, at its peak in 2002, by 8 million viewers — a figure that slumped to 2 million for the current season, its 10th.

The decision is a huge blow to the reality behemoth’s producer, Endemol, but represents a big opportunity for other shingles to fill the enormous gap in the schedule that will be left by the show’s demise.

“Big Brother” takes up around 200 hours of primetime on C4 during its 17-week season. The show and its spinoffs also occupy a large swath of airtime on sister web E4.

What began as an innovative skein in keeping with C4’s goal to push the envelope ended up as something of an embarrassment, especially after a spat over racism during the 2007 season of “Celebrity Big Brother” almost cost C4 chief exec Andy Duncan his job.

“Some people think ‘Big Brother’ is a pariah, but millions of people think it is the biggest thing on Channel 4,” Lygo said.

Endemol put a brave face on the decision, but no other U.K. broadcaster is likely to fork out anywhere near the £60 million ($97 million) per year C4 is believed to have paid for “Big Brother” when it renewed its contract in 2006.

At the time, ITV made a rival offer, forcing up the price and saddling C4 with a three-year deal reckoned to be worth $291 million.

Endemol said: “We are enormously proud of our partnership with Channel 4, where, as stated by the channel, ‘Big Brother’ continues to be commercially successful a decade on.

“Internationally, the format is a worldwide hit that is airing across 67 countries in 2009, including the U.S., where ‘Big Brother 11’ is having one of its most successful ever seasons after nine years on CBS.”

C4 head of programming Julian Bellamy said the end of “Big Brother” would free up some $81 million that will be invested in “the most significant creative transformation in the history of the channel.”

Of this, $32 million a year has been earmarked for U.K. drama, which will delight local producers hit by the dire economy.

For U.S. distributors, the demise of “Big Brother” frees up coin likely to be spent in Hollywood, especially by E4, where acquisitions already account for about a third of the schedule.

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