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Flexing NBCU's studio muscle

17 January 2011

Interview: NBC Universal president of international TV production Michael Edelstein and UK md Gareth Neame.

One of the most notable TV trends of recent years has been the internationalisation of the UK production sector. British producers have prised open international markets, last year selling a record £1.34bn worth of their shows abroad. The US has been a particular focus, with superindies such as Shed, Shine and All3Media launching their own North American operations.

The direction of travel, however, is no longer one way. Attracted by British TV’s track record, the US studios have begun to build up their own production operations in the UK. Warner Bros snapped up the Shed Media group in the summer. Just last week, news emerged that News Corp, parent of Fox, is reportedly interested in Shine.

Notably, NBC Universal International has been very active in recent months. NBC first moved into the UK market in 2008, when it acquired Gareth Neame’s indie Carnival Films. The studio laid low during the worst of the credit crunch, but last year acquired factual entertainment indie Monkey Kingdom, announced a TV push through film producer Working Title, and hired leading producers Alan Brown (The Restaurant, The Apprentice) and Hat Trick’s head of comedy Mario Stylianides to set up their own bespoke production operations under the NBCU umbrella.

Encouragingly for NBCU, all this deal-making has taken place against a background of huge critical acclaim for Carnival Films’ Downton Abbey.

Former Desperate Housewives executive producer Michael Edelstein is the man charged with building NBCU’s TV production presence outside the US. He relocated from LA in the summer, and is based in NBCU’s Oxford Street HQ where he occupies a pristine office decorated with white orchids, carefully placed artefacts and a very large poster of Desperate Housewives.

NBCU’s push into international production is part of the studio’s wider plan to generate $5bn of annual revenue outside the US. Edelstein aims to build a production operation here and then launch into other territories.

One of his first moves was to promote Carnival’s Neame to UK md. “I realised right away that I would never know this market as well as Gareth,” says Edelstein.

Despite its deep pockets, NBCU has not made a ‘trophy’ buy of a UK superindie, but has gone down the route of making a few smaller, strategic acquisitions and hiring top talent. “Internally, we really felt the best thing we could do was build organically rather than buy something large and then figure out how to integrate it,” confirms Edelstein.

The idea is to buy or invest in small independent production businesses or individuals who have the potential to “generate the next Downton Abbey, the next Office or the next Friends.” A strong record of past success, it seems, is less important than the potential for future success.

Both Edelstein and Neame go out of their way to stress that NBCU’s presence is not about the Americanisation of UK production or a “US studio coming in saying we are going to do it better.” Rather, they pitch NBCU’s activity as “putting the muscle of a US studio behind British creativity.”

They cite Downton Abbey as an example. NBC put its own money into the ITV drama, plugging a big deficit on the show in exchange for rights. It did the same with Carnival’s C4 drama Any Human Heart. Without NBCU’s money, says Neame, “we would have made an inferior form of Downton.” He doubts Any Human Heart would even have got off the ground without NBC’s funding.

The backing of a US studio, believes Neame, is ‘game-changing’, particularly at a time when broadcasters want more ambitious ideas but can’t always pay for them and when other funders such as distributors have become more cautious about deficit financing projects.

Neame says: “The US studio model is a completely different accounting model and befits a large organisation that is relatively cash rich. Obtaining cash is not the problem, the problem is that you invest that cash properly on shows that will deliver a return.”

Edelstein stresses that NBCU’s presence in the UK means more money being spent on production here. “We are coming into the market to create more British content,” he says. “Downton was an all British cast, with an all British crew and – unless I’m mistaken – all the money was spent in the UK.”

He envisages spending more time in early 2011 outside the UK to launch international production operations. “We are in talks on acquisitions in several countries at the moment.” Clearly, it’s a case of watch this space.

This interview was taken from the January edition of Televisual

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