Brits getting ‘Desperate’

U.K. webs are filling their tanks with Yank shows

LONDON — Everyone knows that since “Dallas” wrapped in 1991, U.S. shows have played a marginal role in sustaining the competitive edge of Britain’s television channels. Right? Well, actually, no.

In the U.K. the most-talked-about new show of 2005 isn’t a gritty state-of the-nation contemporary thriller or a new reality skein but Buena Vista’s suburban sex saga “Desperate Housewives.”

British program toppers and channel controllers regularly damn U.S. shows with faint praise, reluctantly claiming they are, at best, the icing on the home-produced cake.

But as channels have proliferated and auds spend less time watching the big terrestrial webs, U.S. fare is often not so much the icing as the cake itself.

As digital terrestrial platform Freeview (now in 5 million homes) has grown, the share of primetime audience enjoyed by multichannel — as Brits describe satellite, cable and digital channels — has increased by around a fifth in the last 12 months.

“The reality that American programs play a lesser role on mainstream channels than they did in the heyday of ‘Dallas’ and ‘Dynasty’ is true, but in a qualified sense,” opines vet programmer-turned-entertainment consultant, David Graham, who runs a group of companies that include DGA Metrics.

“It’s a very long time since U.S. series appeared in primetime on BBC1 and ITV1 (Blighty’s mainstream terrestrial entertainment channels), but they are key to (terrestrials) Channel 4 and Five,” he adds.

“In fact, Channel 4 has built a large part of its image on getting the best and the most intelligent U.S shows available.”

That, however, is only part of the picture, as 60% of British homes are multichannel viewers.

With the exception of the UKTV suite of channels, owned jointly by the BBC and Flextech, the top tier of Blighty’s nonterrestrial webs would face bankruptcy without their portfolio of American acquisitions that, in some cases, account for 70% of their schedules.

“Their entire economic model would collapse,” Graham says. “By buying these shows, the smaller channels are able to save money that can then be spent on domestic productions.

“Unlike U.S. libraries, the U.K. archive is of fairly limited scope. The BBC owns many important British shows, and they are not available to many private channels because the BBC wants to hold them back for its own use.

“In the multichannel universe U.S. shows are absolutely crucial to the structure of U.K. television.”

In other words, the days are long gone when “a bidding war” for a hot new U.S. show involved a two-headed rights race between minority webs BBC2 and Channel 4.

These days terrestrial upstart Five, which last year coughed up $800,000 an episode for “Friends” spinoff “Joey,” is slugging it out with niche nets like Sky One and Living for those increasingly important American acquisitions.

Meanwhile, the impact of a tried and tested U.S. hit like “The Simpsons” switching webs is considerable.

Since Channel 4 outbid BBC2 for the Fox toon, which it began airing in November, BBC2’s share has dipped noticeably and played a part in it losing around one percentage point year on year.

It might sound disingenuous, but pure numbers are not the sole objective, especially when advertisers pay a premium for young, upscale viewers.

“The first episode of ‘Desperate Housewives’ got a 24% share for Channel 4, rating even higher with the under-35s, but its impact on how the station is perceived went far beyond that,” reckons a BBC film buyer.

“When a series like that comes along it makes everyone reassess how certain styles of shows are made.

“I remember attending Program Review at Television Center when BBC2 was showing ’24.’ It blew everyone away, and we all ended up asking ourselves, ‘How can we do a British version of this?’ ”

Well, we’re still waiting.

In less competitive times British programmers were often drawn to U.S fare because it offered a lot of bang for few bucks.

Compared with the cost of domestic production, acquisitions remain highly cost effective.

However, they can provide a certain edge essential to establishing new channels in a crowded market.

Says Richard Woolfe, director of programs at Living TV: “We bought ‘Will & Grace’ when it first came up at the L.A. Screenings in 1998 because it was one of these shows that pushed boundaries and took a creative risk.”

Sky One’s acquisitions topper for drama and comedy, David Smith, who is possibly smarting from the failure of HBO’s “Deadwood” to win big ratings for his web last fall, agrees that the right U.S. series can affect a channel’s branding.

Right now the web wants to rid itself of its old blue-collar image and attract more upscale auds.

“We are attempting to reposition Sky as a platform that doesn’t just offer premium movies and sport,” Smith explains.

“And buying series like ‘Deadwood,’ ‘Nip/Tuck,’ ‘Rescue Me’ and ‘Weeds’ for Sky One is part of that drive to appeal to a new kind of subscriber who wants to watch high-quality, challenging drama.”