Yesterday came news that Sky has acquired the Showtime series, Nurse Jackie, starring Edie Falco and Eve Best (recently seen giving a terrific performance in The Shadow Line). This is the latest in a long line of Sky acquisitions that have come after the show has performed strongly on what we used to call “terrestrial television” but should probably call “free to air” television.
In this instance, there’s a good reason for not being too disgruntled that the BBC has lost the series. Here’s how the show was scheduled on BBC2 Saturday nights for the second series:
22 Jan – 2240 – Episode 1
29 Jan – 2240 – Episode 2
05 Feb – 2250 – Episode 3
12 Feb – 2250 – Episode 4
19 Feb – 2250 – Episode 5
26 Feb – 2320 – Episode 6
05 Mar – No episode so BBC2 could air Brideshead Revisited as part of World Book Night.
12 Mar – 2340 – Episode 7
19 Mar – No episode. BBC2 ran a one-off drama, followed by The Tudors.
26 Mar – 2255 – Episode 8
02 Apr – 2255 – Episode 9
09 Apr – No episode as BBC2 was showing The Masters golf
16 Apr – 2305 – Episode 10
23 Apr – 2300 – Episode 11
30 Apr – 2250 – Episode 12
So three interruptions, and no more than three episodes running at the same start time on consecutive weeks. Sky Atlantic will undoubtedly treat it better.
But this news comes a few days after it was confirmed that Sky had outbid E4 for series 3 of Glee, and a few months after Sky also bought the rights to Mad Men following four series on BBC2/4.
Then there are other shows like House (Channel 5), Lost (Channel 4), and of course 24 (BBC2) all acquired by Sky once their success had been built on free to air telelvision.
Making these kind of acquisitions is a game that Sky is very good at.
What tends to happen is that sometime during May each year, when new US series have yet to air anywhere in the world, international broadcasters are brought in to advance purchase series which have thus far simply had a pilot made. At this point, nobody really knows if a series is going to be a hit or not. The networks have placed orders and are hopeful. Marketing campaigns are drawn up. And various international broadcasters take punts on series, without even knowing whether the US networks will make much more than a handful (last year, one show only go two airings before it was pulled off the airwaves).
While a show like Lost might have an enormous buzz surrounding it, nobody really knows how well a show will do until those first ratings come in. At that point the series is just hoping for a full season run of 22 or so episodes. The UK network that owns that show may or may not have a hit on their hands.
A few years back, Channel 4 found itself with two hits from the same network in the same season: Lost and Desperate Housewives. A year down the road and Sky got its chequebook out. Channel 4 had to make a choice to keep one or the other as they couldn’t afford inflated prices for both. They chose Desperate Housewives, and Sky got Lost. In retrospect, I’m not sure that was the right decision.
It should be noted that UK networks can – in advance – commit to buy the rights to as many series as the US networks make. In other words, promise to keep buying a show no matter how well or badly it does. But that’s a tough committment to make up front. That said, when it works, it works well. I believe that this is the deal Channel 5 made for CSI. Sky Living only has secondary rights. On the other hand it can backfire. The BBC did a strong deal for Heroes, a series that burned brightly only in its first couple of years, before quickly fizzling out. The final series was pretty well buried at the weekend late at night by a BBC that had to continue buying the series as long as NBC made it.
So Sky – now with several major channels to fill, including Sky One, Sky Atlantic and Sky Living – is able to come in and “poach” a series that is performing well amongst the various different demographics that they’re interested in. That’s because the original UK broadcaster only committed to the first series.
Simplistically, this would seem to be a good strategy. Mad Men fans might be persuaded that a combination of the fifth (and all subsequent) series of their favourite show, alongside the global HBO deal that Sky’s done to fill Sky Atlantic, might be enough to make them take out a subscription to Sky. The low hanging fruit of sports, movie and science fiction fans long having been plucked by Sky.
But in an era of DVD boxsets, I wonder if this isn’t just a move that will ensure stronger sales for the DVD rights holder in the longer term – usually the same studio that makes the show. Mad Men might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and tips you over the edge into purchasing a subscription. But a £30 DVD boxset might be the easier choice to make.
You should always be wary of small samples, but I know at least two fans of Mad Men and Nurse Jackie, for whom the news that Sky now owns the rights of those respective series,was simply met with talk of DVD boxsets. And as services like Lovefilm and iTunes flourish, there are other ways to watch your favourite programmes.
Not only that, but Sky being the “playground bully” actually creates resentment amongst those programmes’ fans, and might not lead to the conversions that corporately they’re hoping for to continue their growth.
What’s more, it’s surely going to create a climate where non-Sky outlets are going to be more risk averse, and take fewer punts on programming. The BBC has already announced that it’s going to be buying fewer imports. I’d imagine that other non-Sky outlets are willing to spend less money now on imports so that the risk/reward case is lessened should the programme become a hit, and rampant Sky come in with its big wallet.
I think other parts of Sky’s strategy are much better. The deal with HBO is already reaping dividends with the likes of Game of Thrones which reaches its conclusion on Monday. When I talk about how good I think that programme is to people who don’t have Sky, it makes them interested to learn more. No – they’ve not really had a chance to sample its wares (aside from the odd “free” weekend on Freeview, which, if properly promoted is a good vehicle to use), but the first thing that comes to mind isn’t “oh they’re the company that took away…”
And the recently announced massive investment into original programming is to be applauded. I look forward to seeing what it brings to the screens. I’m really pleased to see that they’re now putting their money into original programming. Not everything will work from the outset, but given the scale of what they’re talking about, I’m confident that we’ll see some good TV come out of it.
Note: These are my views, and not those of my employer, who does a great deal of business with Sky. I pay for a personal Sky subscription, and was lucky enough to receive hospitality in a Sky box recently at the O2. In fact, in more ways than not, I’m a big fan of Sky. In particular, their sponsorship of cycling is fantastic, and it was great to see Bradley Wiggins win the Dauphiné at the weekend as part of the Sky sponsored Team Sky cycling team. But I’m probably getting wildly off-topic now.