Untangling How UK TV Airs Stateside Pt 1

If you’re reading this, you are hopefully a fan of UK television but live in the United States. There are so many streaming and broadcast networks vying for UK TV programs but very few efforts to consolidate as many as possible into one place. Watching on this side of the pond is also difficult as we have to wait months, even years between the UK and US releases. We want to support our favorite actors and creatives but they’re often caught in the middle of an extremely messy web of networks, streaming services, and studios. This explainer in several parts will hopefully demystify some of the processes of how we get UK TV in America as this is the kind of information that’s left out of the news cycle. Each part will be linked once completed to this post when finished. 

Disclaimer: I don’t work for any studios, networks, or streaming companies, I work in the US media outside fandom and review TV shows. I’m a diehard fan who has spent years tracking this issue and can detect patterns. This series does NOT go into detail about movie licensing which is a separate issue. If you are a current or former employee of a studio, network, or streaming service and see an error that you can correct without getting in trouble, please email me at info at amandarareprescott dot com to get in touch. 

Part 1: Terminology Breakdown & UK Players. Part 2: US Players & Who Gets What, Why, and When. Part 3: Staying Ahead of the Release Curve. 

Let’s begin with translating some of the industry and legal jargon into layman’s English:

Network: Any media corporation which has a channel on broadcast or cable TV. Think ABC, NBC, etc on broadcast or USA, FX, HBO on cable. 

Streaming Service: Any US media corporation whose means of airing content exists entirely online (ie Netflix, Amazon, etc) or the online-only portion of a cable/broadcast channel (HBO Max, NBC Universal’s Peacock, etc)

Production company: The people in charge of the nitty-gritty of writing, filming, and producing the TV show. Often referred to as a studio.

In-house production: The network owns 100% of the production company and does not need to pay anyone outside of the company to make the TV show.  

Independent studio: The studio is not owned by the network. They act as a freelancer to the network in order to handle the day-to-day production while the network retains quality control on the final product and the right to brand the product with the network logo. Corporate mergers have complicated who qualifies as an independent vs. in house on both sides of the Atlantic.  

Content Provider: A term that is a more jargon-y way to say any of the above specific terms.

License: is a contract between the UK production company and/or UK network and the US channel or streaming service for the rights to distribute the miniseries, series, or made for TV movie by airing, selling DVD’s, or stream online in the US. This contract sets terms for paying creators, and for how long permission is granted for the work to be viewed in the US. Also called a distribution deal.

Co-production: An agreement between a US network/streamer and the UK network/streamer to invest money in the production AND to set the terms for US streaming/airing/etc.

– A simultaneous airing license is when a TV show airs in the UK, then airs in the US later on  that same day in US primetime. These contracts are extremely expensive and are given out sparingly. It’s even rarer for a show to be aired at the same time in the US and UK due to the time difference.

Music rights: This is the contract that gives permission from the artists/composers/record companies to the US networks/streamers to play the music contained in a show. Music rights are often complicated by UK productions purchasing pop music vs. hiring a dedicated composer for the production.

All US tv licenses are decided on an ad-hoc (individual basis). A single contract covering more than 1 show is rare but it does happen. This is important because not all shows branded by 1 channel end up in the same place when they move to the US. 

Who are the players on the UK side of the TV industry? Here’s the most important networks to know:

The BBC is the most well-known British network with a presence on radio, TV, and streaming with iPlayer and more. The network is made up of several smaller channels and brands, sometimes conflicting in business aims and market share.The majority of content Anglophiles would be most familiar with comes from the main channel BBC One. Doctor Who, the big period dramas, many of the classics and more. They have several subchannels. The B-list or avant-garde dramas and comedies come from BBC 2 and the majority of the documentaries come from BBC Four. They also have BBC Wales and BBC Alba (Scotland) that have a mix of localized programming and scripted TV, but very few of these are shown stateside. The BBC is publicly funded via a license fee which is a yearly tax paid by all who want to access their broadcasts. They also sell the licenses from their programs for additional funds. Commercials are banned which makes them different from other commercial TV channels in the UK. 

ITV is a conglomerate commercial ads funded network composed of several independent studios and local channels. ITV is free to air even if you didn’t pay the BBC license fee. The best way to imagine ITV is the UK equivalent to the legacy US networks such as ABC, NBC, and CBS. Some of their most popular programs stateside include Downton Abbey (yes this was not a BBC show), Grantchester and Endeavour. ITV has a mix of soap operas, some period dramas, crime/procedural shows, contemporary dramas, and reality TV. They have several subchannels devoted to reality TV, B-list dramas/comedies, airing US reruns, and local news. 

Sky is the main premium cable subscription service in the UK. Think of it as the UK equivalent of HBO as a few of their productions end up there. Comcast (part of the NBC Universal conglomerate) owns a significant portion of the company. You can’t access Sky without paying for a subscription. Their specialty is big budget productions and shows with a higher content rating than usually allowed elsewhere such as A Discovery of Witches (Sundance/Shudder) and the Helen Mirren Catherine the Great miniseries (HBO) among others. Sky runs several subchannels based on genre, playing movies, and news. 

Channel 4 is a smaller commercial cable channel that is free to air regardless of your cable package or if you paid your cable license. Think of them like the CW in the US, still a network but smaller than the Big 3. The big difference between Channel 4 and other UK networks is that their programming is entirely brought from other studios with the exception of their news/public affairs programming. The Great British Bake Off is currently their most popular show. 

Channel 5  This commercial channel is an international subsidiary of CBSViacom, In recent years it has pulled away from being a dumping ground for UK repeats of CBS/Viacom content and more towards more original productions. They fronted the new All Creatures Great & Small adaptation which is outside their usual sphere and was a huge ratings smash last year. 

There are several other smaller UK cable/paid subscription channels but for the purposes of this I’m going to mention Alibi as their original mystery co-productions and distribution deals w/ PBS (Miss Scarlet & The Duke) and Canada’s CBC (Frankie Drake Mysteries) are gaining traction.

Where do the Brits go when they stream television? As more people cut the cord from cable in the UK, the networks have been under pressure to beef up their online presence. Some of the streamers Americans are familiar with (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+ for example) also have a UK presence but they offer different programming than what’s available in the US. Brits commonly refer to a season of TV as a series and a set of seasons as “box sets” (as in the initial days of DVD collecting). Here are the main ones you’ll read about in press releases:

iPlayer – BBC’s main online catchup/on-demand service. The BBC has been experimenting in the past 2 years with releasing all episodes on the service before finishing weekly broadcast runs, especially for shows targeting the 18-34 demographic. A BBC license is required to stream iPlayer regardless of what device you use. 

BritBox UK – UK BritBox is slightly different from iPlayer because it has many BBC and ITV archive programs (vs an emphasis on catching up) plus a deal with Channel 5 to expand programming. You do not need a license to watch UK BritBox but you do have to pay for a subscription. Notably speaking the UK version of BritBox has shows sold in the US to PBS, Amazon and the premium cable channels. They are also beginning to have their own exclusive programs such as the recently announced Black Tudors inspired drama. 

ITVHub – This is ITV’s version of iPlayer with on-demand viewing of the past month’s episodes. Unlike iPlayer, anyone with a UK email address can access it but there are ads in videos. 

Sky also has several versions of streaming products. Some include bundles with other streamers such as Netflix but all are inaccessible without a subscription.

Stock image of a television studio set.
On set where the TV magic happens. (Pxfuel)

In the UK, all the networks except Channel 4 have a part of their network dedicated to production. To make things more complicated, there are independent production companies in the UK who are paid to make shows by the various networks. Some of these companies also have their own distribution contracts with US networks/streamers. There are also cases of the bigger channels buying out independent companies or investing in shares in order to have more “in house” (internal control) of content. This is especially the case with ITV which was created by the consolidation of several independent local TV channels and studios. These independent studios are actually more responsible for many of the most recent hits on US TV and streaming than you would expect. They have worked for more than 1 of the UK networks in the past and their logo will frequently appear next to the channel/streaming service logo. Since they oversee productions for multiple UK networks, they don’t have a consistent presence in 1 spot. Here’s 4 examples of studios you’ll see the longer you pay attention to production credits:

Mammoth Screen: The company started out as a completely independent studio, negotiating for the ability to produce TV shows for both ITV and BBC. Over time, both BBC and ITV brought shares and now ITV owns majority shares. ITV’s control also includes the arm of ITV that negotiates international distribution contracts. They’re responsible for many of the period dramas, book adaptations, and mysteries wildly popular among Anglophiles such as Poldark, Endeavour, Victoria, and more. Their shows rarely stay in 1 place, and often fetch big bucks such as their deal with Netflix for the upcoming true crime drama The Serpent.  (They’re my faves but that’s a post or 3 for another time.)

Bad Wolf: Two former Doctor Who producers who banded together to promote women behind the camera banded together to form the studio. They are  the masterminds behind such hits as A Discovery of Witches on Sky/Sundance/Shudder, His Dark Materials on BBC One/HBO and I Hate Suzie on Sky/HBO Max. 

Lookout Point: Another name that keeps popping up the longer you track UK TV. They made Gentleman Jack for BBC/HBO and the Les Miserables miniseries for BBC/PBS

World Productions: Best known for Line of Duty on BBC/Acorn TV and Bodyguard on BBC/Netflix. They tend to pop up on a few of the smaller Northern Ireland, Scottish and Welsh productions, especially the police procedurals. 

Why is the network and production company important? First of all, it helps you understand industry press releases a bit better. Secondly, each production company has their own style or area of expertise that they hone on in, and seeing those patterns develop over time is extremely fascinating. Above all, knowing which network and studio is behind a new TV show can be a clue as too could get the US distribution rights if a co-production or license wasn’t already announced. 

The next time you watch a UK TV show, look for the logos at the end of the credits and see what pops up. I’d love to know which networks and studios you’re spotting the most! Feel free to tell me that info plus any other questiond you have.