U.S. TV deals boom in U.K.

LONDON — For top-tier American TV shows, no foreign market is as hot right now as Great Britain.

Commercial broadcaster ITV last week forked out a record price for terrestrial rights to the Warner Bros. sitcom “Veronica’s Closet” toplining Kirstie Alley.

The ITV network, which beat out bids from rivals Channel 4 and 5 for the series, is understood to have paid north of $100,000 dollars an episode, more than double the going rate for a half-hour U.S. sitcom in the British market.

The record price represents a coup for Warners and is all the more extraordinary because ITV generally displays little interest in U.S. sitcoms, preferring to purchase hour dramas and miniseries.

“The last six months have seen a number of high-profile, top-dollar deals (by U.S. studios) in the U.K.,” said Jeffrey Schlesinger, president of Warner Bros. Intl. Television, who was in London to wrap the deal. “There’s no doubt that buyers are white hot for the top shows,” Schlesinger told Daily Variety. Warners, Universal and Disney have all closed substantial deals with the three main commercial players in Britain in the last several months.

‘Exceptional’ show

Jeff Ford, ITV’s head of acquisitions, was unavailable for comment on this latest deal but recently told Daily Variety that “Veronica’s Closet,” which is set in a lingerie firm, was an “exceptional” show.

ITV remains the most-watched British network, though satellite and cable channels have started to erode its share.

An insider at rival commercial station Channel 4 said ITV had paid over the odds for the series. “Paying that sort of money just doesn’t make sense,” the source said.

Meanwhile, Schlesinger said satellite rights to “Veronica’s Closet” and two other new fall sitcoms, “Hungry for Survival” and “Meego,” as well as the upcoming fourth seasons of “Friends” and “ER,” have been snapped up by Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB.

On the bird first

The window for “Friends” and “ER” on the satcaster will be prior to the terrestrial window on Channel 4: In other words, some 25% of British TV households (those equipped with dishes or cable hook-ups) will see new episodes first on BSkyB rather than on Channel 4.

The BSkyB deal with Warners is in fact a setback for Channel 4, which apparently can no longer afford to demand exclusivity for the shows it buys. Channel 4 renewed its contracts for “ER” and “Friends” in December, but decided it could not afford to hold on to the satellite window.

BSkyB also acquired rerun rights to the first three years of “Friends” and “ER” in this latest deal with Warners.

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