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Interview: Henry Normal, Baby Cow

In fifteen years, Baby Cow has become one of the UK’s top comedy indies. Co-founder Henry Normal explains all

Henry Normal set up Baby Cow with Steve Coogan in 1999, and since then the indie has been home to some of the most distinctive scripted comedy to come out of the UK: Gavin and Stacey, The Mighty Boosh, The Trip, Hunderby, Marion and Geoff, Ideal and, of course, Alan Partridge. Its film arm has enjoyed a winning streak in the last year too, producing Oscar-winning Philomena and box office hit Alpha Papa. And Baby Cow’s animation division is set to launch football fan comedy Warren United ahead of the World Cup.

Not bad for a company that was originally set up in Brighton so that Normal and Coogan could spend more time in the city with their young families. The indie’s first series, Human Remains, was made there. But they moved the company out for their second, Dr.Terrible, because of the cost of filming in a seaside town.

Ever since, Normal has been commuting to Baby Cow’s London office in Fitzrovia, home to 18 staff. It has grown to become one of the few remaining independent, mid-sized producers in the industry (BBC Worldwide took a 25% stake in 2008) – one that regularly turns over around £10-15m a year.

Normal, who was the co-writer of The Mrs Merton Show, The Royle Family and Coogan’s Run, started out as a performance poet and stand-up after a short spell as an insurance broker. He says Baby Cow sought to stay comedy focused from the very beginning, rather than diversifying like its more established competitors Hat Trick, Tiger Aspect and Talkback. “Steve and I set off wanting to make programmes that we would want to watch, and that was fundamentally comedy. I think if you have a level of expertise you should go with that. You don’t think of somebody like Picasso for his car maintenance, or James Hunt for his painting.”

Normal puts Baby Cow’s success down to everybody there being a comedy enthusiast. “People work all sorts of hours, very often six and seven days a week...It’s not so much work as a vocation.”

He adds: “We talk to lots of people, read lots of scripts. We like to think there is a certain style we go for and therefore we get that style sent to us. So we do a lot of working class, single camera, naturalistic stuff.”
Normal also says that the one defining factor about Baby Cow’s output is that it strives not to produce anything “too obvious.”

And new animation Warren United fits into this category. Normal says that, as far as he is aware, nobody has ever produced a series about a football fan. Set to launch on ITV4, it’s a family friendly show that’s the brainchild of exec producer Bill Freedman who has spent eight years bringing it to the screen.

New animated narrative series are rare in the UK. Warren United was written in the UK by Simon Nye, David Quantick and Dominic Holland. The animation was done in Canada – which offers generous tax breaks – by animation house Smiley Guy. “It’s very family orientated. It’s got a guy at the centre who has a wife and kids, so it’s not unlike the American animations. Except this has a new flavour to it that they haven’t got. We have tried to keep it as generically everyman as we can.” He calls Warren “sort of aspiring working class, at best lower middle class” who comes from the fictional town of Brainsford. “It’s not too far north, nor too far south – and looks a little bit like Peterborough.”

Normal is responsible for day-to-day business at Baby Cow, while Coogan is involved in various projects (he is writing a new film with Philomena’s Jeff Pope and is filming some more Alan Partridge this year). Many of Baby Cow’s staff have grown with the indie. For example, deputy Lindsay Hughes has been with Baby Cow since it began, and was originally Coogan’s PA, while Alan Partridge producer and director Dave Lambert started as a runner 12 years ago.

Normal says he is a business person “by default”, who wants to make creative programmes. He exec produces all Baby Cow shows, reading scripts and sitting in the edit. He doesn’t go to the shoots though – he says he finds them too slow. “There’s nothing for me to do and we have great producers who can handle that.”

Asked about the future of Baby Cow, he says there’s no great plan – and never has been. “I don’t think we started with a plan other than lets make some television we want to watch.” That said, he points out there are now more channels such as Sky, Comedy Central and Dave looking for content as well as digital outlets. “We are talking to Hulu, Amazon, Xbox…we’ve got productions with channels we haven’t made stuff for before which we will be announcing soon.”

Normal doesn’t sound unduly worried by the planned conversion of BBC3 to an online only channel. BBC3 backed Baby Cow’s most recent hit, Uncle. “The whole industry is in flux. We can’t really predict what will happen in the next two or three years. It might be a very astute move by the BBC...who knows, in five or ten years all TV might be online.”

Henry Normal CV
“Originally, I was a little baby. Then I went to a very bad school. Then I was an insurance broker. Then I decided to go on a little adventure. I was doing stand-up comedy and poetry all around the country. I toured everything from schools to prisons, any venue that would pay me.

“Then I had a TV series called Packet of Three and a radio show, but I realised I wasn’t as funny as other people I knew, especially Steve and Caroline Aherne. So I wrote The Mrs Merton Show and The Royle Family with Caroline and Craig (Cash), and Paul Calf, Tony Ferrino and Coogan’s Run with Steve Coogan.

“Then, when I was writing The Parole Officer with Steve we decided to set up a company...”

Warren United starts on Tuesday 22nd April at 10pm on ITV4.

Posted 16 April 2014 by Tim Dams

Hinterland: anyone for Celtic noir?

British TV audiences have embraced foreign language drama thanks to BBC4’s airing of acclaimed Scandi thrillers such as The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge. So the producers and backers of Welsh thriller Hinterland have high hopes that it will find a receptive audience when it airs on BBC4 later this month.

And it deserves to. Hinterland blows out of the water any preconceptions a viewer might have about a Welsh-language drama. Taught, spare and beautifully shot, it’s filmed in and around the remote hills and seascapes of North West Wales, which lend a real sense of grandeur and authenticity to the drama.

Hinterland has already aired to strong audiences on S4C and BBC Wales, but its BBC4 outing will be the first for non-Welsh viewers. “It should satisfy fans of Scandi noir, but we’re hoping that they will also see that it is original and far from being a copy,” says S4C drama commissioner Gwawr Martha Lloyd.

Cardiff indie Fiction Factory originally pitched Hinterland to S4C with a straightforward premise, recalls exec producer and co-creator Ed Thomas. “We knew S4C hadn’t had a detective series for many years. So we went in with a simple pitch that every grown up channel should have a detective they can call their own. ”

After S4C committed to back the series, Fiction Factory went out to find co-production partners to meet the £4.2m budget. From the start, the idea was to shoot two versions: one in Welsh for the home market, the other in English for the international market.

Usually, it would be a tough call to raise co-pro money for a Welsh drama. But Fiction Factory’s timing was good. “What helped us along the way was the success of the Scandinavian dramas – Wallander when we started off, and after that The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge,” says Thomas. Backers responded to the idea of a European drama with scale and a non-metropolitan aesthetic set in landscape that is “tough and sinewy and a little bit mythical.” Into this authentic landscape, the writers placed the usual trope of a detective with a troubled past to investigate terrible crimes.

Distributor All3Media responded early on, committing 25% of the budget. BBC Cymru Wales also emerged as a backer, and further funds were raised from the MEDIA fund, the Welsh Assembly Government and from Tinopolis, which Fiction Factory is affiliated to. “It was more akin to raising money for a film than a TV series,” notes Thomas. Early international buyers included Danish broadcaster DR Denmark, makers of The Killing.

The shoot ran from November 2011 until June 2012, with 30-35 days allotted for each of the four 120-min films. The 100 crew and cast were based in and around Aberystwyth for the duration. This not only had a significant impact on the local economy, thinks Thomas, but also meant the team could build relations with the local authorities – which helped the shoot. The drama’s police station was, for example, fashioned out of one of the University’s agricultural buildings, while the council opened up their old law courts. “The wisest thing we did was to take the cast and crew up there for seven months,” says Thomas.

And once there, the landscape radically affected the way the film was shot. The drama’s budget meant that the producers knew they couldn’t compete with the pace, urban locations and interiors of shows like Luther. “Our excursions into the police station were as little as we could get away with,” says Thomas. So more time was spent getting out into the landscape. The actors were dressed accordingly – styled to look like outdoor types rather than typical onscreen detectives in suits.

The production was blessed with a very harsh, almost arctic winter. There was plenty of low, clear sun which was perfect for shooting on an Alexa. “The DoP (Hubert Taczanowski) was Polish. He came from the old school, Soviet era. What he could do with low light on the Alexa was extraordinary. He’d never been to Wales before, and got off on the fact that it is a big little country, with almost a mid-Western, Sam Shepherd-like landscape.”

The Welsh and English language versions were both shot scene by scene by the same actors. They would rehearse in one language, shoot in it, then do the same shot in the second language.

It’s not yet clear which version BBC4 will air. But Thomas says one of the big surprises has been the way the Welsh version has been received by non-Welsh speakers so far. “They say watching it through the prism of Welsh adds to its sense of worldliness and place.” After all, he adds: “Middle England now feels very comfortable watching dramas in another language.”            

Set in and around Aberystwyth, Hinterland comprises 4x120-min films which each centre around a murder investigation led by DCI Tom Mathias, a detective with a troubled past.
Produced by
Fiction Factory in association with S4C, Tinopolis, BBC Cymru Wales, the S4C Co-Production Fund and All3Media International
Richard Harrington, Mali Harries, Alex Harries, Hannah Daniel, Aneirin Hughes
Executive producer Ed Thomas
Producers Ed Talfan, Gethin Scourfield
Created by Ed Talfan and Ed Thomas
Directors Marc Evans, Gareth Bryn, Rhys Powys, Ed Thomas
DoP Hubert Taczanowski  (Ep 1&2), Richard Stoddard (Ep 3&4)
Line producers Kathy Nettleship, Meinir Stoutt
Production designer Eryl Ellis
Art director Gerwyn Lloyd
Editor Mali Evans (Ep 1&3), Kevin Jones (Ep 2&4)
Colourist Gareth Bryn, Matt Mullins   
Camera Alexa

Hinterland is set to air on BBC4 at the end of this month

Posted 11 April 2014 by Tim Dams

Q&A: Sy Lau, president of China's Tencent Online Media

China is becoming an increasingly important market for UK producers, with British formats and shows such as Sherlock, Gogglebox, Supernanny and Secret Millionaire all selling to the country.

And one of the big players in China is Tencent, one of the country's largest internet companies, which has struck deals with the likes of BBC Worldwide and ITV Studios to import shows for its service.

Here's a brief Q&A interview with Sy Lau, the president of Tencent Online Media Group, China, where he spells out why the company is a fan of British programming.

Tell us about Tencent? Tencent is the largest Internet company in Asia and the world’s fourth largest Internet company by market capitalisation. Tencent launched its online video service Tencent Video in 2011 and it is now the leading online video platform in China. For a 30 RMB membership fee per month (around £3), the audience gets exclusive access to certain popular Hollywood films as well as some other member rights.

What kind of British content is available? In June 2013, Tencent Video announced an agreement with six UK-based production houses including BBC Worldwide and launched its British Drama Channel. In 2013, 40 drama series were broadcast on the channel in total.

What is the most popular kind of content?
On the international content front, over 40% of Chinese Netizens voted Sherlock, Downton Abbey, Black Mirror and The IT Crowd as the most popular series that are available online. The new British Drama Channel has received more than 200m impressions in total since it was launched in June 2013.
Why is British drama proving popular? The top two reasons British drama has become so popular in China is that the content is so interesting and how elaborate the execution of those ideas is. According to analysts from EntGroup, mini-series like Black Mirror and Sherlock were viewed like mini-films rather than TV series, considering the different content in each episode; they were viewed as being great for people who are pushed for time. Merlin and Downton Abbey were viewed as combining British myths and traditional culture into great programming in a very natural way. The IT Crowd brought over British humour while Skins revealed some of the social challenges. These kinds of content and approach are not frequently seen in Chinese 
dramas. Learning English was also a big draw: 59.7% Netizens claimed this as a big motivation to watch British dramas.

Which UK producers does Tencent deal with? Tencent Video signed agreement with six production houses including BBC Worldwide, ITV Studios, Fremantle Media, All3Media International and Endemol to import British dramas in June 2013.

Are you looking to increase your business with UK producers? The user base for British drama within China is expected to reach 160m within the next 2-3 years. Tencent is always striving to introduce the finest premium content. We have introduced a variety of American TV series, and plan to introduce more British drama this year.

Posted 10 April 2014 by Tim Dams

Creating a family business on the small screen

Simon Chinn (left) is regarded as one of the world’s leading cinema documentary producers, with Oscar winning films like Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man to his name. His cousin Jonathan (right), meanwhile, is a well known reality TV show runner, with an Emmy for Fox/PBS’s American High.

The pair have recently teamed up to launch Lightbox, an indie focused on the small screen. The company’s first project is a series of documentaries for Xbox about the start of the digital revolution.

The plan, says Simon Chinn from his London office, is “to take both our experience and find the intersection between the two.” That means creating TV content that’s “really distinctive and unique,” with the production values of feature docs, but also popular and mainstream.

Adds Jonathan Chinn, via Skype from LA: “We are hoping to run the gamut of non-fiction, all the way from formatted reality to premium, high end documentary content. But always with an eye on trying to do things a bit differently.”

With offices in the UK and the US, Lightbox aims to create non-fiction shows for traditional broadcasters in the US and the UK, as well as some of the new media buyers such as Xbox and Netflix.

The pair hope to grow the company organically in both markets, creating a transatlantic, mid-sized indie of note. Simon Chinn says that he’ll keep producing feature docs through his existing company, Redbox. “I can make a good living out of feature docs and be creatively fulfilled. But I’ve never really seen it as a scaleable business.” Despite his track record, feature docs can still take years to produce: the deal-making is tough, and producers have to reinvent the wheel for each film.

“I don’t want anyone to think that I’m some arthouse, indie film maker coming into TV – that is not my sensibility,” adds Simon, who is a fan of C4’s Educating Yorkshire. “I think Educating Yorkshire is more moving and inspiring than the best indie cinema, which struggles to hit those emotional notes.”

Posted 09 April 2014 by Tim Dams

The best British shows at Mip

Ahead of this month’s MipTV international sales market, Tim Dams picks the British shows set to get buyers reaching for their cheque books

The MipTV international programme sales market kicks off in Cannes this month (7-10 April). As ever, there will be a significant UK contingent at the market, touting the best shows and formats made by British producers to international broadcasters. Up for grabs is a slice of the estimated £1.2bn that the UK generates each year from selling its television shows around the world. Here, Televisual names its top Mip picks – the British produced shows that will be launched in Cannes that look set to generate strong interest from international buyers. They range from big budget dramas like The    Honourable Woman and Jamaica Inn, through to high end factual such as Stonehenge Empire and quirky formats like Sexy Beasts and Ejector Seat.

The Honourable Woman
Drama Republic, Eight Rooks
BBC2, Sundance Channel
BBC Worldwide
The Honourable Woman will be one of the headline dramas in BBC Worldwide’s MipTV catalogue this year. There’s already strong buzz for the Hugo Blick-directed espionage thriller which stars Maggie Gyllenhaal on a personal journey to right her father’s wrongs. BBC Worldwide president of Global Markets Paul Dempsey says: “It’s a top quality drama with an edge-of-your-seat storyline, incredible cast and stunning production values.”

Sexy Beasts
Producer Lion Television
Broadcaster BBC3
Agent All3Media International
A twist on classic dating formats, Sexy Beasts uses prosthetics to transform people into monsters, werewolfs and aliens before they go on a first date, taking their real looks out of the equation. All3Media is launching the series at MipTV, and will have two ‘sexy beasts’ walking around Cannes to promote the show. “It’s a highly visual concept – a lovely and immediately graspable turn on the classic dating format,” says Rachel Glaister, SVP Press & Marketing at All3Media International.

Stonehenge Empire
Producer October Films
Broadcaster BBC2
Agent Cineflix Rights
A hi-tech reimagining of one the world’s most famous sites, this should appeal to buyers looking for history and science TV for an upmarket, male audience.

The Great Fire
Producer Ecosse Films
Broadcaster ITV
Agent ITV Studios Global Ent
Set in 1666 as London is engulfed in flames, ITV is pitching The Great Fire as a character driven drama about one of the world’s greatest disasters, brought to life with the latest special effects.

Jamaica Inn
Producer Origin Pictures
Broadcaster BBC1
Agent FremantleMedia International
Jamaica Inn is a new adaptation of the classic Daphne du Maurier novel, with a strong cast led by Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay.  Set in 1820 against the backdrop of the windswept Cornish moors, it’s directed by Bafta-winner Philippa Lowthorpe. Bob McCourt, acting CEO, FremantleMedia International says: “There is a constant demand from broadcasters around the world for high-quality British drama and with Jamaica Inn, we aim to fulfil that appetite.”

Ejector Seat
Producer Endemol UK Broadcaster ITV
Agent Endemol Distribution
This game show format looks promising: if contestants give the wrong answer, their seat travels backwards along a track. If they reach the edge before they answer another correctly, they’re tipped out of their seat in spectacular fashion.

Producer Nightjack Films
Broadcaster Channel 4
Agent DRG
C4 aired a well received pilot episode earlier this year of Babylon, a police comedy drama with impeccable credentials: written by Peep Show’s Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, it’s directed by Danny Boyle.

Win It Cook It
Producer Plum Pictures
Broadcaster Channel 4
Agent Hat Trick International
Win It Cook It is a new British food format launching at MipTV that’s a cross between a quiz and cookery show. Contestants must answer questions to try to win the best ingredients to cook with. Then they must turn them into a prize-winning dish.

Posted 04 April 2014 by Tim Dams

The Voice's Moira Ross on the art of entertainment TV

Moira Ross, the exec producer of The Voice UK and head of entertainment at Wall to Wall, on the art of producing entertainment shows.

Entertainment series like The Voice and Strictly are such big shows, that you need to have a broader vision for them. It’s important to set a strong tone.
You have to step back and look at the bigger picture and think, how do I want people to feel on Saturday night when they are watching it? I want them to feel they are part of it and can relate to it. I also like to have a laugh. I want to bring out the humour and the humanity.
The trend has been to edit things in a really safe way or go for this faux jeopardy. But I like to see if we can get something funnier, or make it warmer and softer. I’ll ask, is it making me laugh, is it cheeky?
Jeopardy is an old-fashioned entertainment concept now. If it is not real, it shouldn’t be in there.
Casting is what takes a show up to the next level. It is the people who make a show.
Kylie is naturally really warm, and is a feminine addition to The Voice. Ricky brings us wit – he’s an everyman and is down to earth. They have both broadened the tone of the show and and Tom are enjoying working with them too. There’s a great rapport and humour between them all.

We have so much footage that we couldn’t squeeze into the series of all the judges dancing in the studio in-between performances. They love music and they’re in an environment that’s all about music with a live band and great singers. And if they are having a good time, you have a good time watching it. The more smiles that happen on screen, the more you smile at home as viewer.
It’s a fun job. I could be doing much worse jobs than hanging out in the studio listening to Will’s jokes!
I hate emails. I would much rather have a meeting. I don’t want to sit doing emails when I could be having a conversation.

There’s a lot of pressure on The Voice, because it’s a Saturday night show. It’s the shop window to BBC One, so all eyes are on it.
It takes someone who is quite patient to do this job. And you’ve got to be someone who really likes people, who wants to see them to do well - from the people on the team, the stars in the chairs, to the singers who audition. I am really passionate about that and love the team I work with – they have been with me for years now! We want contestants to have a fun and positive experience on the show and I think you can really see that every week.

The Voice UK crowns its winner for 2014 on Saturday 5 April, live on BBC One.

Posted 26 March 2014 by Tim Dams

Interview: Patrick Holland, Boundless

When Patrick Holland took over as md of Boundless in 2012, he inherited some of the biggest factual TV series in Britain: The Apprentice, Grand Designs, Escape to the Country, Great Railway Journies and Four Rooms. It’s a slate that most indie bosses would give their right arm for. But it’s also one that presents huge challenges. 

It’s Holland’s job to keep these long runners fresh, to keep the viewers tuned in – and to keep them onscreen. In this respect, he’s had success – The Apprentice, for example, is now shooting series 10, while Grand Designs is commissioned through until 2016.  Escape to the Country is about to air its 600th edition.

Boundless has achieved the holy grail of indie TV production – a supply of long running series that underpin the business. But, stresses Holland, you can’t take this longevity for granted in the television industry. “The reason they had become such extraordinary real estate was because of the care, skill and creativity that had gone into those series.”

Keeping The Apprentice fresh almost 10 years on, he says, comes down to finding the right team to run it. After series eight, he promoted series editor Cate Hall to exec producer. Huge effort was also put into casting series nine, as well as creating tasks that catch the zeitgeist. He also cites Lord Sugar’s commitment to the series. “Working with him keeps you on your toes. I think we have developed a good relationship.”

Holland has had to balance producing Boundless’ long running slate, though, with a search for more returning features and factual entertainment shows of his own to build up the business further.  In this too, despite hiccups like the poorly received The Intern for Channel 4, Holland has had success. Turnover is up to £27.6m last year, from £23.8m in 2012.

He says there are series in development with Channel 4 and BBC1 which look promising. Other recent series commissions include My Kitchen Rules for Sky Living as well as fledgling format World’s Toughest Jobs for BBC3. This month, BBC1 aired a new specialist factual commission, An Hour to Save Your Life. All, he hopes, might have the potential to turn into long runners.

Holland says the market for high-end factual is vibrant at the moment – albeit hugely competitive.

In particular, it’s very difficult to land a big factual entertainment series. “For the last five years, everyone in British TV has been saying, ‘Where is the next Apprentice’. But no one has come up with it.”

Commissioners, he says, view factual entertainment as “really, really risky,” as there’s great concern that viewers might not buy into a format from the start. That said, Holland thinks that “authenticity” is the big trend in television at the moment. Viewers, he says, want to hear extraordinary, real stories and not to feel boxed in by a strongly formatted show. After all, the big hits of recent times – Gogglebox, Educating Yorkshire or 24 Hours in A&E – are essentially ob docs. To back up his point, Holland cites long runner Grand Designs, exec produced by Fiona Caldwell. Boundless has tried to make the series less formatted, so that it now breathes like a filmic observational documentary. “The build is almost the backdrop to the human story,” he says.

Meanwhile, Holland’s other big challenge has been to create recognition for Boundless. The indie was born in 2011 after parent company Fremantle Media UK broke up its production giant Talkback Thames into five different labels – Boundless (factual), Retort (scripted comedy), Talkback (comedy entertainment), Thames (entertainment) and Newman Street (drama).  Fremantle Media UK CEO Sara Geater’s plan was to emulate indie groups like All3Media or Shed, which have creative, entrepreneurial producers running their own labels in the group while sharing back office functions such as legal, business affairs and press.

Industry talk now centres on whether Fremantle is going to buy All3Media. Holland won’t comment on the issue, but says if it did happen he wouldn’t feel any sense of threat. If anything it would validate the entrepreneurial producer model that now characterises Boundless’s relationship with Fremantle.

In the meantime, Boundless is pushing outwards. For example, it’s branching into specialist factual with shows like An Hour To Save Your Life, BBC1’s Talk to the Animals and BBC2’s Essex Bangers. Holland says traditional factual genres are now blurring to such an extent that a lot of the bigger companies are making specialist factual, which was once the preserve of smaller, niche indies. “What commissioners want now is new ways of telling stories.” And producers like Boundless, reckons Holland, can bring their experience to bear in the genre from big shows like The Apprentice or Grand Designs.

Nevertheless, the ambition at Boundless remains the same, whatever the genre, says Holland. “We want to tell the best factual stories in the best possible way.”

Age 45
Education Newport Free Grammar School, Essex; Emanuel College, Cambridge (Philosophy); Sussex Unversity (Philosophy MA)
Holland’s first job was a trainee researcher at indie TVF, working on Everyman and Equinox films. From there he went to Twenty Twenty to work on Big Story.  He then joined the BBC’s Modern Times as an AP, where Stephen Lambert gave him his first film to make. He went with Lambert to join RDF, directing Looking for Dad, A Very British Murder, The Case of Tony Martin and Faking It. Holland then ran C4’s new talent scheme The Other Side with Charlotte Moore at IWC, and later went to Ricochet as exec producer before becoming director of factual in 2010. He joined Boundless as md in 2012.

Posted 25 March 2014 by Tim Dams

How UK producers have cracked the US TV market

It all began back in the late 1990s. The phenomenal success of pioneering British formats in the United States, like Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, Survivor and The Weakest Link, has led to an ever-increasing amount of business between the two countries’ television industries.

This was cemented in the mid-noughties with further success for British formats, like The X Factor, Pop Idol, Wife Swap and Supernanny. And in recent years, British producers have pushed ever further into the US market, selling in original drama like Downton Abbey through to factual shows like America: The Story of US (pictured above) and Undercover Boss. 

Exporting to the US

The US market now accounts for a greater share of British TV exports than ever—up 50% since 2007, to make up almost half, or £475m, of all export revenue last year, according to Pact.

A swathe of British production companies – like Raw TV, Studio Lambert, Blink, Wag TV, Zig Zag and Firecracker – now earn some 50% of their revenues from the US market.

British execs are now a familiar sight in the US television industry. At January’s Realscreen factual market in Washington – a pitching and networking forum for producers to US broadcasters – some 300 of the 2,500 delegates were British. Senior British execs in the US industry include Fox’s head of reality Simon Andreae, ABC’s head of entertainment Paul Lee and NBC’s president of alternative and late night programming Paul Telegdy.

NBC’s senior vice president of alternative programming and development Brandon Riegg – who oversees NBC shows America’s Got Talent, The Biggest Loser and Fear Factor – says: “In LA, I don’t think there is a show we have that doesn’t have a British producer running it or at a senior level. There are a tonne of British TV folk who work in the industry.”

Brits are keen on doing business in the US because it is the largest television market in the world, worth an estimated $37bn (£22bn) a year. The number of buyers – from the key networks through to the niche cable companies – dwarfs the UK market with its handful of commissioning channels, notably the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Sky and Channel 5. By contrast, at Realscreen, some 70 US broadcasters were in town looking to commission content.

Open for business

The Brits are also motivated to do business in the States because of the terms of trade, which 10 years ago handed to producers the rights to their programmes. If producers can translate one of their shows that has aired successfully in the UK to the United States, there is serious money to be made. 

The Americans, for their part, are keen to engage with British producers. The US market is highly competitive, so broadcasters now look all over the world for unique and original content in a bid to secure a hit show.

This open attitude is summed up by Steven Lerner, the vice president of programming for Scripps Networks Interactive brands HGTV and DIY Network. “I don’t care where you are from or what you do, I just want good shows. We are open for business.” 

Proving that programmes are rather more important than the nationality of a production company, Lerner adds: “I can’t even tell you how many productions we have from UK companies because I get mixed up about some of the companies that are in the States. Like Leopard, is that owned by the UK? And Pioneer – I think they are based in the UK.” (Both are indeed UK companies, but with significant US operations: Leopard makes House Hunters International for HGTV, while Pioneer makes Extreme Homes.)

US buyers also like to take as much risk out of the commissioning process as possible. So it’s an advantage for British producers to sell in an idea for a show that has already earned its stripes in the competitive UK market. 

Indeed, being British is a great asset. The UK market, where public service broadcasters have a remit to produce original and innovative programming, is respected in the US for being highly creative and risk taking. British producers say the US market is often more open to them than the UK. Whereas producers can easily get pigeonholed in the UK for making certain kinds of shows, the US is seen as more meritocratic.

Agents and lawyers 

However, doing business in America is different to the UK, say British producers. The difference between the two markets was the subject of panels at both Televisual’s most recent Factual Festival and at the Realscreen conference.

Producers say it’s best to start small in the US, rather than splashing out on an expensive office and high overheads. Firecracker’s Mark Soldinger recalls arriving in LA in 2009 with a suitcase and renting a room from the company’s distribution partner Zodiak, and giving himself six months on the ground to make a success of business in the US. The company, which has US credits including American Gypsy Wedding, now turns over almost 50% of its revenue from the US market. 

But it’s important to partner up either with an agent or established production company if you are not a well-known producer who is looking to break into the United States. 

Described as a “necessary evil”, agents can open doors for producers. They have a good overview of a complex market with dozens of different buyers with different needs. 

Indeed, broadcasters rely on agents to help them filter ideas and set up meetings.

Agents, though, come at a price. They typically take 10% of a producer’s fee for a show. Or, if they package the show, they take 3% of the total budget. Plus, in both cases, 10% of the back end. 

A good lawyer is important too. In the US, every deal is a negotiation. “There are customs but there are no fundamental terms of trade,” says lawyer Richard Hofstetter, partner and co-chairman, Entertainment Group at Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz PC. The lawyer negotiates the terms of the deal, so that every eventuality is covered. For example, the deal could see the network commit to “lock” the producer for the life of a series as opposed to having the option to replace the producer at any year. 

The pitching process
In the UK, it’s seen as very bad form to pitch an idea to multiple broadcasters at the same time. The UK pitching culture is monogamous, with an idea often tailored to a commissioner at a single broadcaster. In the States, by comparison, producers can be far more promiscuous. “You go out to everyone in the space of a week and say, here is what I have got,” says Nutopia chief executive Jane Root. This speeds up the pitching process too, as it means producers don’t have to wait weeks for an idea to be rejected before taking it to another broadcaster. 

A sizzle reel is also crucial to help sell an idea to a US broadcaster. “For us, it’s a question of tape. It’s quite difficult to sell off paper,” says Victoria Fitzpatrick, head of television at Creative Artists Agency, who adds that a “great title helps too.” 

On screen talent, either a celebrity or an outsize and compelling character, also helps sell an idea.

British producers praise US commissioners for their directness in meetings. There is less laborious small talk and decisions are made faster. “There is a wonderful directness about America,” says Root. “People either say yes, that’s great or no, I’m not interested.”

She compares it to the UK, where conversations “can go on for years, literally, before anyone makes a decision.”

Nick Emmerson, chief executive officer, Ricochet UK, adds: “The pitching process is fun there, and sometimes odd. You can set up a tape and show, and some can say absolutely nothing at all – you are out of the room. 

Other times, you can really engage in conversations. Here, when you pitch to Channel 4 or the BBC, it is more of a conversation or dialogue. There, you are on stage. You put on a show and try 
to sell.”

Posted 19 March 2014 by Tim Dams
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