Frenzy yields to caution in tight-fisted era

Mipcom Preview 2011

Five years ago, well-heeled U.K. webs regularly outbid one another to secure firstrun exclusive rights to the latest zeitgeist show from the U.S.

It happened for “Friends,” “The Simpsons” and “Lost,” to highlight several auctions in which prices shot through the ceiling to unprecedented levels.

But as fears of a double-dip recession linger and broadcasters’ budgets remain tight, a bidding war is now the exception rather than the rule for British buyers seeking to strengthen their schedules.

Before the credit crunch, the studios reaped big benefits as the price of premium shows soared to $1 million an hour and beyond.

The high point was when Sky 1 bought ABC’s ‘Lost’ from Channel 4,” recalls Theresa Wise, who runs her own media consultancy in the U.K.

That was a never-to-be-repeated deal,” she predicts. “Across Europe — and the U.K. is no exception — cable and satellite channels are buying more and more U.S. shows, while demand from the terrestrials has tended to flatten out.”

When “Glee” changed hands in May, pay box BSkyB was reported to have paid £500,000 ($814,000) an episode to secure the series from Channel 4 niche web, E4.

For the broadcasters, anxious about ad revenues in an online world, the end of the frenetic dealmaking seen before the downturn is a welcome trend. But as the “Glee” incident suggests, it is mistaken to suggest that competition is evaporating in the U.K. program acquisitions market. Or that a full-throttle bidding war won’t break out in the near future between, say, BSkyB and Channel 4, should the right show emerge — despite the decreasing likelihood of any “Lost”-style budget-breaking deals.

Far and away the biggest spender in the U.K. acquisitions market is BSkyB, whose revenues have defied the downturn. After recently poaching “Mad Men” and “Nurse Jackie” from the BBC, plus “Glee” from E4, observers might conclude that BSkyB is close to monopolizing the purchase of high-end U.S. fare in Blighty.

For good measure, the satcaster owns the HBO catalog, with past, present and future U.K. rights sewn up.

Sky possesses very deep pockets,” says a rival network exec. “If there is a show they want to acquire, the chances are they are going to get it.”

Having bought Virgin Media TV’s channel portfolio last year, headed by Living TV, the paybox’s need for a range of acquired shows across genres is greater than ever.

There are more channels that require shows, but we are still selective about what we buy,” says BSkyB head of acquisitions Sarah Wright. “We will only buy something when it is good value.

Four or five years ago people were overpaying for shows. That isn’t happening now, but it is still a healthy market.”

Earlier this year, Channel 4 returned to the acquisitions market in a big way — not that it had ever withdrawn — purchasing Warner Bros. comedy “2 Broke Girls,” the remake of “Charlie’s Angels,” political thriller “Homeland” and laffers “New Girl” and “Apartment 23.”

With “Big Brother” no longer part of the schedules and “Friends” poached by Comedy Central, Channel 4 needed to fill a lot of slots, especially on E4.

UKTV, now co-owned by Scripps, does not have Channel 4’s financial firepower, but it is emerging as a force to be reckoned with in terms of buying high-profile U.S. shows. Last fall, it snapped up ABC crime saga “Body of Proof” and, encouraged by the skein’s perf, recently bought NBCU drama “Grimm.”

‘Grimm’ is our biggest acquisition to date,” says Catherine Mackin, UKTV’s chief buyer. “We’re investing more in U.S. shows, but they have to be right for what is nowadays a 10-channel portfolio.

What is great about the current crop of U.S. shows is that I think there is something for everyone. We are always looking for the hidden gems.”

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