Brits careful in considering U.S. shows

Recession will keep buyers cautious at L.A. Screenings

LONDON -- What series British TV buyers pick up -- and what they pay for them -- typically makes for one of the biggest dramas of the L.A. Screenings. The weeklong event kicks off Thursday as program buyers from around the world converge on Tinseltown to sift through the new primetime shows from the U.S. broadcasters.

This go-round, eye-popping prices are not likely -- unless everyone goes after the same show.

Consider this recessionary factor: Advertising-driven commercial channels in the U.K. are seeing revenue down 15% year on year.

"We will be spending nowhere near the levels we did in the past on American programming, and it's unlikely we will buy a new show this year unless we get a good deal," said Kevin Lygo, Channel 4's director of television.

Channel 4 made U.S. fare part of its core output during the past 20 years, but its execs suggest U.S. shows have become too ubiquitous. The network slashed last year's acquisitions budget by 25% to £119 million ($185 million) and will cut another 10% in 2009.

Several companies have reduced their staff attending the Screenings this year.

Lygo won't attend; neither will ITV director of television Peter Fincham, who recently handed responsibility for acquisitions to digital channels head Zai Bennett in a hint that ITV has lost interest in new U.S. programming for its main channel.

The BBC has been a significant buyer of shows like "The Wire," "Damages" and "Mad Men," which have earned niche ratings as well as critical acclaim, and it also airs the more commercially successful "Heroes." But the pubcaster is increasingly under pressure domestically to stop bidding against commercial nets for American shows and was recently slammed by Channel 4 for outbidding it for the forthcoming mini "Harper's Island."

RTL-owned Five recently was forced to exit bidding on "House," one of its signature primetime shows, with the network citing "commercial and scheduling reasons" for backing out.

Five's new director of programming, Richard Woolfe, hints he will use saved acquisition funds to launch home-grown shows, though Woolfe will attend the Screenings alongside Five chief exec Dawn Airey and newly appointed head of acquisitions Jeff Ford.

ITV will be repped by recently appointed Bennett and head of strategy David Bergg. Channel 4 will be repped by new head of acquisitions Gill Hay and Angela Jain, head of digital network E4, while the BBC will be repped by Sue Deeks, who took over the acquisition portfolio from recently retired veteran buyer George McGhee.

At Sky One, new acquisitions head Sarah Wright expects "business as usual." Her first week on the job will be spent at the screenings.

Wright said the price tag for American shows has probably seen its high-water mark.

"Cancellations are the biggest risk when you are buying a pilot," she added. "You can buy something that doesn't work out."

But Wright said she's upbeat about the screenathon. "I'm really encouraged by the scripts that I've seen," she said.