Brits won't be pound foolish

Recession has buyers treading carefully when considering U.S. shows

Which 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 today as program buyers from around the world converge on Hollywood to sift through new primetime shows from U.S. broadcasters.

This go-around, 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-over-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 has 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 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 such shows as "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 under increasing pressure domestically to stop bidding against commercial nets for U.S. shows and recently was slammed by Channel 4 for outbidding it for "Harper's Island."

RTL-owned Five recently had to stop bidding on "House," one of its top shows, with the network citing "commercial and scheduling reasons" for backing out.

Richard Woolfe, Five's new director of programming, hinted he will use saved acquisition funds to launch homegrown shows, though he will attend the Screenings alongside Five CEO Dawn Airey and newly appointed head of acquisitions Jeff Ford.

ITV will be repped by the 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, and the BBC will be repped by Sue Deeks, who took over acquisitions from recently retired veteran George McGhee.

At Sky One, new acquisitions head Sarah Wright expects "business as usual." She said the price tag for U.S. shows probably has seen its high-water mark.

Still, Wright is upbeat about the Screenings. "I'm really encouraged by the scripts that I've seen," she said. (partialdiff)