The days are long gone when Blighty’s main networks could schedule American soaps and crime series in peak time, then sit back and watch the numbers add up. At its peak in the mid-1980s “Dallas” was one of the BBC’s all-time successful shows, with as many as 20 million viewers tuning in.
These days however, while ITV and BBC1 (the U.K.’s most popular stations) maintain their strategy of big investment in long-running, returning home-produced drama series, the U.S. miniseries virtually has disappeared from peak time.
To watch this kind of material, U.K. audiences must turn to BSkyB’s Sky 1, the Rupert Murdoch-owned channel. But even here the omens are not all good for the continued dominance of the acquired miniseries. Over the past year Sky 1’s ratings have plunged by more than25%.
For the time being, Sky 1’s biggest draws remain U.S. series, such as “The Simpsons,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (also a BBC2 hit) and “Beverly Hills, 90210,” which are all top-10 sat shows.
But imported programming still makes up a big chunk of U.K. television. Of Britain’s four terrestrials, minority commercial web Channel 4 screens far and away the most non-domestic programming.
Lacking the spending power of ITV and the BBC, C4 relies on American comedy and drama which accounts for about 50% of their entertainment lineup.
Last year U.K. regulator, the Independent Television Commission, noted that C4’s diet of imports amounted to more than half of the total output, a 3% rise.
American shows are the main culprit. In 1992 C4 showed 992 hours of U.S. material. It jumped to 1,308 hours a year later.
U.S. comedy and cop shows have always played well on C4, and 1994 was no exception. But the current crop are not as popular as past hits. At their peak “Hill Street Blues,” “Cheers,” Golden Girls” and Crosby” provided C4 with audiences of up to as many as 5 million. “NYPD Blue,” launched on C4 last winter, was a critical success but ratings were only adequate, at around 1.5 million in a tough Saturday midevening slot.
On the comedy front, “Ellen” was one of C4’s most successful premiering American imports last year. It averaged around 2 million viewers. “Frasier” also made a strong initial showing, with audiences hitting the 1.5 million mark.
But this was no match for “Roseanne.” These days that program gives C4 its most popular import, scoring audiences in the 3.5 million range. This is just as well, since the channel, outbid by an alliance of the BBC and satcaster BSkyB, no longer holds the rights to “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
One trend to emerge during 1994 was the success of U.S. scifi and fantasy shows aired on Britain’s minority webs.
BBC2, the pubcaster’s minority channel, scored with “The X- Files,” one of its most successful shows of 1994. C4 also is discovering that sci-fi shows are finding an audience with the hard-to-reach teen crowd when played in the 6 p.m. so-called “happy hour” slot. Its buyers are keeping an eye out for more sci-fi material.
While primetime on ITV and BBC1 remains a no-go area for non-domestic programming, the two channels still have a keen appetite for American kidvid.
BBC1’s use of children’s programming increased by 15% during 1994. On ITV, Amblin’s “Tiny Toon Adventures” topped the U.K.’s kiddie charts. “Power Rangers,” screened for ITV by breakfast station GMTV, also was popular.
BBC and ITV continue to attract big audiences with antipodean soaps “Neighbours” (10 million-plus) and “Home and Away” (around 9 million) weekdays in early evening slots.
ITV execs will be analyzing the response to its latest afternoon Aussie series, cop show “Blue Heelers.” The net paid a reputed $770,000 for 52 episodes of Australia’s most popular drama.
“Baywatch,” partly funded by London Weekend Television, remains a keystone of ITV’s Saturday evening sked.