American Acquisitions: Is the flow of US quality TV drying up?

British channels that rely on big American hits to bolster their schedules are facing an unprecedented dearth of good material. Ed Waller reports on the crisis being made out of dramas that lack staying power

For a US series to become a hit in the UK, it must work on both sides of the pond, otherwise the US network pulls it and we're left with nothing to air. But US viewers aren't watching that many new shows this season. Only two bona-fide hits have emerged: Ugly Betty, already airing here on Channel 4, and Heroes, which debuted on the Sci-Fi channel last week. To adapt the old saying, American audiences sneeze and British networks get a cold.

The new medical drama 3lbs was acquired by BBC1 and UKTV Gold for a big UK launch this spring but wasn't resuscitated by CBS after three episodes went largely unwatched. Channel 4's hard-fought battle for the new NBC thriller Kidnapped ended the same way. Likewise, ITV, Five, Sky One, LivingTV, Bravo and Hallmark have also all seen planned imports axed by their US broadcasters recently.

"There's been an astonishingly high body count," says ITV's head of acquisitions, Jay Kandola, whose plans to bring some "glossy Americana" to ITV1 primetime were scuppered when Six Degrees, the much anticipated new drama from the Lost creator J J Abrams, was pulled off US air by ABC after only four episodes. "It has been uniquely brutal," echoes Marion Edwards, the president of international television at 20th Century Fox TV Distribution, whose job it is to sell the dwindling number of surviving series to international channels. "It's very hard to get people to try new shows."

The easy explanation is that the effects of new technologies such as broadband TV, video on demand and personal video recorders are finally being felt. A stark fact is that ER topped the 1996/97 season with an average 30.8 million viewers; last year Desperate Housewives topped the season with an average 21.2 million viewers. Where is everybody? Off being interactive, TV executives fear.

But TV folk can't simply pass the buck to new media; some blame lies with the herd mentality of US television. Much more than British television, our cousins in Hollywood are "inspired" by the previous season's break-out hits. More bluntly, they copy what worked on rival networks and hope it'll work for them too. After 24 and Lost, everyone wanted their serialised drama in which the storyline unfolded over the entire season rather than wrapping up within the hour.

Writers loved being released from the cage of the one-hour story; actors loved the new depth of character given to them, and network execs drooled over the obsessive water-cooler and web chat that ongoing sagas such as Lost generated, not to mention the DVD box-set sales. So last autumn US viewers were deluged by heavily serialised sci-fi, heist and thriller epics. "The quality was high but they all became too complicated," remembers Kandola. "Audiences just want to veg out to an hour of telly, but the networks wanted to all be like HBO and win awards." Some US newspapers even started tagging the new dramas with colour-coded alerts ranging from red to green, depending on how much concentration was required to follow season-long storylines.

It all got too much and the game of me-too ended in overkill and the ratings started tumbling. "People can't take on too many obsessions," explains Edwards. After the axes started falling - who remembers Invasion's demise mid-story? - audiences started a backlash, having been hooked on new shows only to have them abruptly binned. So they retreated into long established programmes, such as ER, now in its 13th and one of the biggest years on air, or off into the digital void, perhaps never to return to network TV.

Suffice it to say that a certain amount of worried introspection has now descended on the Dream Factory. Some brave TV executives have even started wondering aloud why millions and millions of dollars were spent on innumerable scripts, more than 250 pilots, 50-odd new series, and all that marketing, for just a handful of hits that are now expected to pay for all the flops. "It's becoming more and more expensive, and whatever happens in digital, the 93 per cent failure rate for TV pilots will stay the same," warns the celebrated US screenwriter Dick Wolf, the creator of the globe-trotting Law & Order franchise.

For the Brits who are expected to fly into the LA screenings every May to compete for shows that might not even make it past three episodes on air, the US commissioning system is even more worrying. "It's crazy that every May everyone pitches for writers and directors, spending $2m (£1m) making a pilot that may never be seen," ITV's director of entertainment and comedy, Paul Jackson, told a conference of US television executives recently. "It is the maddest system ever invented."

The reaction among UK channels has been similar to the US viewers: to fall back on established hits. Channel 4 reportedly pays something like £975,000 for every reliable hour of Desperate Housewives it airs, and Sky One is said to have coughed up a similar figure to steal Lost from C4 last November. The show's ratings on Sky are small beer compared with C4's figures - about 1.34 million last week compared with more than 3.5 million - and it has few chances of earning its money back. But David Smyth, head of acquisitions at Sky One, Two and Three, says the payback will be in terms of Sky subscriptions rather than ratings and ad revenues alone.

One unexpected upshot of all this is that the biggest hit of the US season thus far, NBC's supernatural drama Heroes, about a disparate bunch of people who discover that they have X-Men-style superpowers, was overlooked by all the big UK buyers, who perhaps saw it as just one of the many sci-fi clones that sprang up in the wake of Lost.

"None of the terrestrials even made a bid," says the Sci-Fi channel's managing director, Nick Betts. Not even Sky One was interested. "We already have plenty of sci-fi," Smyth explains. Betts eventually got the show for a song, understood to be a mere £200,000 for each episode, with rerun rights going to BBC2.

All in all, it's just another year in the murky world of the American acquisitions market, a Wild West town of high stakes and lost fortunes.

Five UK-bound series that have made it across the Atlantic

Shark

US network: CBS

UK networks: Five, UKTV Gold

Rating OK stateside and launching here in March, this drama has James Woods playing a hard-boiled defence attorney who takes his cut-throat tactics to the prosecutor's office after a Damascene courtroom conversion.

Raines

US network: NBC

UK network: ITV3

Launching in March in the US and September/October in the UK, this supernatural/cop drama-hybrid has Jeff Goldblum, inevitably described as "quirky", playing a psychic detective. He also has to deal with the ghost of his dead partner.

Brothers & Sisters

US network: ABC

UK networks: E4, C4

Calista Flockhart's first TV role since Ally McBeal is a decent enough ensemble drama about a Los Angeles family and its internecine relationships. This companion to Desperate Housewives debuts on E4 in June.

Hidden Palms

US network: CW

UK network: Sky One

Best described as The OC set in the desert, Hidden Palms has the teen heart-throb Taylor Handley playing an angsty 15-year-old forced to go and live in Palm Springs with his mum and evil stepdad. It launches in UK in September.

The Black Donnellys

US network: NBC

UK network: ITV2

Launching tonight in the US, this Irish twist on a Sopranos-style gangster drama is set in New York and is one of the most anticipated mid-season shows. It comes from the Oscar nominee Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby).

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