U.S. Media Giants’ Invasion of U.K. Reaches the Next Level

The manicured lawns of “Downton Abbey” and the iconic Buckingham Palace balcony in “The Crown” are under American ownership. A trans-Atlantic buying spree has seen U.S. media giants grab a host of U.K. production assets in recent years, including “Downton Abbey” maker Carnival (now owned by NBCUniversal), “The Crown” creator Left Bank (Sony Pictures Television), Shed (Warner Bros.) and All3Media (Discovery and Liberty Global).

British networks are hot commodities too. Disney and 21st Century Fox are battling to take over pay-TV service Sky. ITV, Britain’s biggest commercial broadcaster, has long been a rumored target. Viacom has already snapped up Channel 5.

The vaunted “special relationship” between the U.S. and Britain is thriving in the media and entertainment space. But with Brexit clouds overhead and other countries emerging as international content hubs, the question is whether the feverish trans-Atlantic dealmaking will cool down — or whether it might actually heat up further as the FAANGs (digital players Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google) enter the game.

“Britain punches way above its weight in terms of the amount of talent that exists in that market,” says Kevin MacLellan, chairman of global distribution and international at NBCUniversal. MacLellan, who recently moved back to Los Angeles, spent more than a decade working in London and kept a sharp lookout for local talent with whom NBCU could partner.

“Seven years ago I was beginning to see the biggest groups being acquired by aggregators, so our strategy was to identify the best talent and go to them and create a structure that was interesting to them,” he says. The approach has led to agreements like the one with “Harry Potter” films producer David Heyman to set up Heyday TV. More are in the offing.

The gold rush for U.K. content makers started after changes to British law in 2003 enshrined producers’ ability to retain rights. That gave rise to a vibrant indie sector and export market, and ushered in a dizzying cycle of M&A.

Many established companies have been gobbled up, leaving fewer targets. But a new wave of start-ups founded by well-known players has emerged, such as Sister Pictures, the new venture of former Kudos chief Jane Featherstone; and Expectation, a budding super-producer set up by ex-Endemol Shine president Tim Hincks and former ITV programming head Peter Fincham, and which has the backing of BBC Studios.

Buyers can still expect to pay 10 to 15 times earnings for a U.K. scripted business and about eight times earnings for unscripted. Thomas Dey, CEO of About Corporate Finance, an investment bank that has worked on scores of production deals, including the sales of Left Bank to Sony and Raw to Discovery, says his buyer pool has swelled from about 10 when the M&A cycle started to about 70 to 80 now. More than a quarter of his buyers are U.S.-based.

“The volume won’t be quite what it was in 2012 to ’14, where you were seeing 15 to 20 transactions a year,” Dey says. “We will
see lots of investment in start-ups now, and the midsize companies being bought at a rate of five or 10 a year.” There’s also now space for the larger players and consolidators to get bought. “That’s where the OTT platforms are going to come in. They are going to be the ones that hoover up the
big things.”

Thus far, the streaming giants have cut checks to British writing, on-screen and executive talent instead of buying production assets. But as massive budgets for shows like “The Crown” come into play, buying a producer might look like better business than handing off a healthy margin to a third party.

“They are building big studios internally, and they can choose to bring in big producers, or they can buy top-quality production companies and drop them into the studio and then do their own commissions,” one industry expert says of the FAANGs. “When these guys come in and start playing, it’s going to change the game.”

David Abraham, a veteran British exec who has run TLC in the U.S. and pubcaster Channel 4 in the U.K., thinks the rise of the FAANGs will drive new kinds of deals between traditional players desperate to beat back the new kids on the block. “Old enemies could become frenemies or allies because of the potential scale of what the combination of Netflix and Apple might represent to the likes of Sky and Disney and NBC and others,” says Abraham, who now runs his own indie start-up, Wonderhood Studios.

British broadcasters are talking about setting aside their differences to create a joint streaming service. (The BBC and ITV already partner on OTT service BritBox.) Viacom, which bought Channel 5 in 2014 for £450 million (more than $750 million at the time), supports the effort. “We expect to be part of that collaboration when it happens,” says James Currell, who oversees the U.K. and Northern and Eastern Europe for Viacom Intl. Media Networks.

Not everyone welcomes the growing U.S. presence on the British broadcasting landscape. The BBC and others have complained loudly about the influence and power of American digital players, which have driven up budgets and competition for talent and viewers. Critics also see a threat to cultural identity.

“It is a key part of society that we do have our own cultural broadcasting coming from a U.K. cultural point of view,” says Colin Browne of grassroots TV group Voice of the Listener & Viewer. “That’s not to say there isn’t a great role for international stuff as well, but it’s that prime focus on producing U.K. material for a U.K. audience that it is important not to lose.”

When Viacom bought Channel 5, there were concerns it would flood the network with U.S. content. Instead, the inverse has been true, Currell says. “If you look now compared to four years ago, there is less U.S. acquired content, and our success has been driven in investing in Channel 5’s U.K.-originated content.”

One sale that would send shock waves through Britain would be that of free-to-air broadcasting giant ITV. The company’s share price tripled during then CEO Adam Crozier’s seven-year tenure as he diversified and built a network of production assets. Anyone buying ITV would consider it the leading channel as well as a significant and international production group, says Mark Maitland, a media specialist at PwC. “ITV now is a production house on a global scale — a big hitter,” he explains.

John Malone’s Liberty Global has a 9.9% stake in ITV and is frequently talked about as a potential buyer, as is Comcast/NBCU. MacLellan says nothing is in the works on that front but adds that Comcast has the bandwidth to do other deals while its run at Sky plays out.

Other countries in the region, including France and Germany, have steadily become international production hubs in their own right, with high-end drama from continental Europe and formats from Israel drawing global interest. But Britain still produces more programming that travels than any of the new entrants. “The strength of U.K. producers means that not only are they producing U.K. content — they are producing U.S. and European content as well,” says Lorraine Ruckstuhl, head of the media team at Barclays in London. British producers’ association Pact estimates that the value of U.K. program exports was £902 million in 2016-17 (approximately $1.2 billion during that period). The U.S. was the biggest buyer, accounting for just under $450 million.

The weak pound as a result of Britain’s vote to withdraw from the European Union has made deals cheaper for Americans buying up companies and content. But Brexit has also brought uncertainty. International channel operators such as A+E, Discovery, Disney, Sony and Turner use the U.K. as a base for their European operations, but it’s unclear whether a U.K.-issued license will be valid in the EU after Brexit.

“There are some things that can and will move as things change,” says Theresa Wise, CEO of the Royal Television Society. “But that doesn’t mean people won’t invest in the U.K. as an IP creation hub. That’s not going to change. You speak to some companies, and they are saying they are doubling down on their investment in the U.K.”

MacLellan also confesses to some concerns over Brexit. But the fundamentals of the business in Britain — talent, infrastructure, incentives, the English language — will not be impacted. “We have invested a billion dollars in production in the U.K. in the past three years,” he says. “I don’t see that slowing as a result of Brexit. … There is too much talent and too many advantages in that market for us to slow that down.”

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