Ch. 4 asks: What price U.S. hits?

Sticker shock has net re-examining acquisitions strategy

LONDON -- Channel 4 acquisitions chief Jeff Ford warned Thursday that the broadcaster will be forced to walk away from U.S. acquisitions if prices for hit shows continued to show huge increases.

"The problem is that acquisitions always used to be there to make sure that we could take risks with the commissioned parts of the schedule," Ford said at Channel 4's winter season launch. "If they continue to get more expensive, we're going to have to say goodbye to them."

Earlier this month, Channel 4 was outbid by satellite broadcaster BSkyB for seasons three and four of disaster drama "Lost" in a deal understood to be worth almost $80 million, or just over $1.7 million an episode.

Channel 4 is understood to have paid about the same figure to retain rights to "Desperate Housewives," a show it had originally paid between $200,000 and $300,000 an episode for when it picked up the show after the L.A. screenings two years ago.

"There has to be a view that either we are not going to be in these things or we could go (to L.A.) in November and then have a discussion about shows that we know are going to work well," Ford said.

Competition for key U.S. shows has multiplied in the U.K. market as digital channels as well as terrestrial channels have begun to compete for the best Hollywood fare.

But the cost of renewing proven hits has forced buyers to make tough decisions. In recent negotiations, the BBC had to call time on holding on to the rights to "24" and Hallmark Channel U.K. lost out on the second season of "House."

"We couldn't afford both shows so we decided to keep 'Housewives,' " said Channel 4 program head Kevin Lygo, who also spoke at the season launch.

Channel 4 will replace "Lost" with "Ugly Betty," this year's breakout hit on ABC, he added.

Upcoming highlights of the winter season include "The Mark of Cain," a hard-hitting drama about four young soldiers against the backdrop of savage and unpredictable combat in Basra. Award-winning writer Tony Marchant wrote the script.

"Trainspotting" author Irvine Welsh returns to the small screen with new television comedy "Wedding Belles," about four childhood friends preparing for a wedding.

Returning series include factual news show "Dispatches," a Christmas finale for oddball medical comedy "Green Wing" and reality stalwart "Celebrity Big Brother."