At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, broadcasters, cablers and even streamers found themselves in a mad dash for content, as their original productions toppled like a pile of dominos.
“It was like a fire sale when we all started shutting down back in March and April,” says Val Boreland, head of program planning for NBCUniversal Television and Streaming. “Everyone was just looking for anything they could get their hands on.”
To fill their gaping programming holes, networks sought out and acquired international series on an unprecedented scale. However, now that the dust is just beginning to settle, and handfuls of U.S. series are tentatively returning to set, where does it leave the global pipeline of shows? Will the glut of international acquisitions continue, and if so, will they remain as big a factor in networks’ plans?
According to Kevin Levy, the CW’s vice president of program planning, scheduling and acquisitions, COVID-19 didn’t cause the network’s strategy to change as much as “become more aggressive and accelerate.”
“In the early stages of the pandemic, we recognized the challenges our productions would face in getting back up on their feet, and in order to give them and our studio partners time to figure everything out and do everything safely, we made the decision to push what would have been our fall launches to January and that created a need for us to find available programming that was on brand, and that fit the CW model, to fill out the schedule,” Levy says.
The network looked to markets like the U.K., Canada and Italy for help, picking up British horror-comedy mini-series “Killer Camp” from the former, and the Sky Italy-led “Devils,” headlined by Patrick Dempsey, from the latter.
Having a star of Dempsey’s magnitude is a “real coup” for CW, Levy says, and the series, along with a couple of other acquisitions, has shown promising signs from its recent debut.
While not every single acquisition is going to set U.S. audiences alight (for instance, British panel game show “Taskmaster,” one of the biggest unscripted hits in the U.K. in recent years, was yanked from the CW schedule after only one, poorly-rated episode), the unpredictable nature of pandemic production means that CW cannot afford to curb its international content push, according to Levy.
“Original programming is important not just for the broadcast side and our affiliates, but for the digital side too. The more original programs we could populate our schedule with, the better,” he says. “Calendars have shifted, it’s going to take a little while for things to be normalized, and we have not slowed down on our pursuit of content. But we are looking forward to being able to rely on a regular stream of production again.”
One of the big international acquisition success stories during COVID-19 has been Canadian medical drama “Transplant,” which, according to Nielsen, is averaging around 6 million total viewers after seven days of delayed viewing for NBC — not too many emergency operating rooms away from the numbers “Law & Order: SVU” put up last season.
While the “Transplant” acquisition deal was certainly helped by the fact that the show is made by NBCU’s international studios division, the show irrespectively “hit all of the checklist points that we look for, which is rare,” says Jeff Bader, head of program planning for NBCU Television and Streaming.
“Shows like that are hard to find, which is not to say there aren’t a lot of really good shows out there. But you need to find something that’s not too British or not too Canadian or not too Australian. It has to be something that feels right,” Bader says.
Both Bader and Boreland have taken on expanded responsibilities as part of NBCU’s newly-restructured entertainment business units, headed up by Frances Berwick, and both agree that the re-shuffle has given the company a stronger base from which to dive into the acquisitions market.
“We have a really good structure in place to make sure we get a look at what’s out there and then decide which of our platforms it’s best for, rather than everyone having to go and scour on their own,” says Bader. “Hopefully we will see more and more of these and our desire to find them is not diminishing at all, COVID or no COVID.”
Looking at Peacock in particular, it’s clear the new streamer was keen to add some foreign feathers to its content tail from the very start.
Its list of international series included both U.K. crime show “The Capture,” originally commissioned by the BBC, and David Schwimmer-led comedy “Intelligence,” co-commissioned with Comcast-backed pay-TV operator Sky, from launch. Well-received BBC One drama “Noughts + Crosses” was the most recent addition, a “timely” move according to Boreland, not just because of the pandemic, but also given the racial justice protests taking place across the country.
Boreland says the streaming audience’s desire for foreign shows has been built up over the last few years, and the pandemic has likely only made viewers hungrier.
Add the fact that Peacock still needs to fill a vast content library in an increasingly competitive, crowded acquisitions market, and Boreland says NBCU will continue to “take a more aggressive look” at prospective international deals.
“I think that the U.S. audience has already changed its appetite for international programming, especially in a pandemic when people are at home and looking for good and different content. They’re probably a little more open now than they have been before,” she says. “There are so many content hours to fill. To think that we shouldn’t go with international programming is crazy because there’s so much great content around the world.”