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 a pressing error that you can correct without getting in trouble, please email me at info at amandarareprescott dot com to get in touch.
If you’re reading this, you must be a fan of UK Television but live in the United States. Watching on this side of the pond is difficult as we have to wait months, even years between the UK and US releases. This explainer in two parts will hopefully demystify some of the processes. 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.
Part 2- The US Players & Why Does It Take So Long
Part 3 – Patterns of UK to US Pickups
US premieres of UK TV shows on streaming services are negotiated at three different stages in the process depending on the show. As I said in Part 1, each of these contracts is on an ad-hoc or individual basis. When these negotiations happen varies from one show to the next. However, shows with more than 1 season will often end up being negotiated pre-production because US networks will pay a greater share of production costs spread out over several seasons. Miniseries or made-for-TV movies tend to be picked up in the later stages.
The first round for finding a US network or streaming service is the pre-production stage. This stage is critical if the UK network or streamer wants a full co-production with a US partner or if US companies are looking for international television shows of interest to their audiences. The second stage is post-production when UK networks have completed TV shows to show to US and international network/streaming representatives at industry conferences or festivals. Sometimes the UK network may have a specific network or streamer in mind and they will present the show directly for negotiations. The third round is post-UK airing which is usually when shows that weren’t picked up on the conference or pre-production stages are now up for licensing.
For the UK players these are the most important factors for negotiating a US distribution deal:
– Percentage of production costs covered
– Target demographic of US network/streaming service
– Existing contracts/relationships between UK and US companies
For the US networks and streamers these are the most important factors when negotiating with the UK:
– Licensing cost
– Co-production cost
– Genre/subject matter fit with brand identity
– Existing audience demographic potential interest
– New viewer potential interest and investment
– Ad sales
In many cases, the US networks have the upper hand when it comes to negotiations. There are some cases where the UK networks and streamers do. Here’s a list of the main US networks and streamers involved in importing as of May 2021:
The Main US Network Players:
PBS: PBS is the oldest US network involved in UK TV importation. It is also the US company closest to the BBC model of public taxpayer (and donation) funded broadcast TV. PBS licensing of UK TV is divided into two halves. Masterpiece is a curated selection of British period dramas, mystery shows, and contemporary series. American Public Television negotiates individual licenses w/ UK networks/studios and other countries for documentaries, soap operas or scripted period/mystery/contemporary dramas outside the Masterpiece branding contract. In recent years often APT gains the broadcast license for shows licensed to other streaming channels.
HBO: HBO has had a long track record of running UK TV series. In the 80’s through mid 2000s their main angle was producing the period miniseries and modern dramas that were too expensive or too risque for PBS such as Elizabeth I with Helen Mirren. Today this angle still exists, but in recent years they have taken on licensing shows for US airing they didn’t originally co-produce with Sky or BBC.
BBC America (owned by AMC): They are the broadcast home of Doctor Who and Killing Eve. In the beginning, the network was run as a BBC subsidiary, but several years ago the name was sold to AMC Networks. Unfortunately, this has meant a steep decline in the networks’ ability to air BBC catalog content. In addition, AMC’s shift towards building up its streaming offerings has left the channel short on original UK programming.
AMC: In recent years, AMC has been premiering their UK TV shows on streaming or on one of their sub-brands but the new series The Beast Must Die with Cush Jumbo and Jared Harris will be airing on the channel first. Showtime: In recent years, their collaborations with UK studios have slowed down somewhat, but in the 90’s and 2000’s they also took on big-budget UK TV collaborations. The most recent production in this category is Patrick Melrose.
Starz: Starz mainly co-produces with independent UK studios for big-budget alternate history dramas and occasionally crime/procedural series. They are best known for Outlander, Black Sails, The White Princess/The White Queen/The Spanish Princess royal trilogy.
Epix: A more recent entry into the mix, but they are thin on the ground compared to the other networks above. Their only major UK co-production so far is Belgravia and a pick up of the Fox International/French Canal modern The War of The Worlds adaptation.
The Main US Streaming Players
This is not a “which service should I subscribe to” guide, that’s going to be a separate post…eventually.
PBS Passport: This is PBS’s main streaming service which began as a way for cord-cutters to continue to support local stations with monthly donations. Passport has for streaming the broadcast version of new and previously aired Masterpiece shows. The broadcast versions depending on the series may have been edited for time, curse words bleeped out, or nudity pixelated in order to stay on the right side of the FCC (Federal Communications Commission). It has since expanded into a platform where PBS offers early binge-watching of new shows/seasons and there are occasional series such as Jamestown that are not shown on PBS stations but are only available to stream on Passport. Subscribers also have streaming access to non-Masterpiece and APT shows such as Great Performances, plus local PBS station programs.
Amazon Prime: Amazon has two main platforms for UK TV. The Amazon Originals label is where their co-production deals with ITV and Mammoth Screen (ex: the 2018 Vanity Fair miniseries) and BBC (Small Axe) are promoted. Some shows such as Carnival Row are made in-house by UK creatives. Amazon Channels are where other networks/niche streamers host content that Amazon Prime members can add to their membership for a fee between $4 and $10 extra per month. Some of these streamers have their own individual platforms/apps but they signed contracts with Amazon to expand availability, advertising potential, and device coverage since Amazon has the Firestick and Kindle platforms.
Masterpiece Prime: This was the first iteration of PBS on streaming before the Passport platform was developed. This add-on to a Prime subscription allowed Amazon to carry the older Masterpiece and Mystery! series from decades ago PBS/Passport lost the license to. The main difference between PBS Passport and Masterpiece Prime in terms of fees is that MP Prime’s profits go directly to main PBS and Amazon and not individual stations. You can’t write this off on your taxes. Unlike Passport, Amazon has no restriction on nudity, cursing, or time so they often will have the license for the unedited DVD/original UK version of the new/previous Masterpiece series.
Netflix: Like Amazon, Netflix has BBC co-productions the true-crime thriller The Serpent and Bodyguard and shows that are licensed for streaming such as Call The Midwife. Some Netflix exclusives such as The Crown and Bridgerton are also made in-house by UK partners. In recent years Netflix has lost many UK sitcoms and dramas to other streamers as UK networks wish to consolidate licenses or develop their own streaming services. Netflix is still an important venue for UK films and also many non-UK TV shows. Netflix tends to cater to the massive budget period, contemporary, and crime/thriller dramas.
BritBox US is a joint streaming venture between ITV and BBC to showcase their archive material and to air new content. Both networks are committed to expanding the service by taking back shows licensed to Netflix and others earlier on. BritBox is not just about viewing the classics such as BlackAdder, they are adding many recent UK releases such as McDonald and Dodds as exclusives. They are also testing out airing some shows exclusively on BritBox US vs. first runs on the broadcast. The main difference between UK BritBox and the US version is that the UK edition of the service has all the shows licensed to PBS, Amazon, and others here in the states.
HBO Max: HBO’s streaming service combines classic HBO shows with movies and TV series from other parts of the Warner Brothers archives. Max brought the contract for Doctor Who on US streaming as well as streaming BBC hits such as Ghosts, and I May Destroy You plus Sky’s I Hate Suzie.
AcornTV (owned by AMC): Acorn has rebranded themselves as focusing heavily on the mystery/thriller/procedural genre. At first, Acorn picked up many older period dramas and cozy mysteries from UK independent studios/channels such as Granada. Many of these shows were licensed or co-produced by US A&E back in the day. As BBC and ITV started to take back licenses for BritBox, many of these are leaving the service and being replaced with more mystery or contemporary dramas such as Keeping Faith by independent companies from Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. They also carry shows from Australian, Irish, EU, and Canadian companies. Occasionally Acorn will acquire a period drama such as BBC’s A Suitable Boy but it is usually because other streamers rejected the series.
Minor US Streaming Service Players
These services have fewer new or upcoming UK production or license deals, but every once in a while, they’ll announce something to pay attention to.
Hulu (owned by Disney): Best known for co-producing Sally Rooney’s Normal People and the upcoming Conversations with Friends with the BBC. Through the FX brand, Hulu also recently streamed the BBC Black Narcissus miniseries. They also have The Great and Harlots with UK indie studios. Hulu also has a back catalog of older BBC dramas and comedies, but some of these have been moving to BritBox in recent years.
Sundance Now (owned by AMC): Sundance Now is best known for streaming A Discovery of Witches from Sky as well as occasionally licensing BBC miniseries such as The Cry and McMafia. The bulk of Sundance’s UK offerings are aimed at the indie and niche films market.
AMC+ Although I have not tested it, AMC is offering a way to bundle Sundance, Acorn, and their other branded streamers into 1 thing on AMC+. AMC+ on first launch licensed BBC and Mammoth Screen’s Edwardian The War of The Worlds miniseries. Since then, they have premiered other UK shows on one of their other brands before adding it to AMC+ but this may change depending on their strategy.
Peacock: NBCUniversal’s streaming service has a scattering of UK content. Some of it is due to NBCUniversal Comcast owning Carnival, Downton Abbey’s production company and some of it is random acquisitions of off the beaten path UK series rejected by other US streamers. Their most notable recent acquisitions are Noughts + Crosses from BBC and Mammoth Screen and Anthony from ITV, as well as a random scattering of Sky produced series.
Why Do Americans Have To Wait A Year To See A UK TV Show?
The delays built into the process for moving UK TV shows to the US are eternally frustrating but also make sense once you unpack the process. As I said at the beginning of this article, the majority of UK shows get picked up by American streamers/networks at the post-production or post-UK airing stage. US buyers often want to see critics’ reviews, marketing buzz, social media discussion, UK ratings, or the number of streams so they know what to expect. Cashing in on a hot title or an actor that’s already well known for other US projects is the end goal.
Buying a TV show is not at all like buying something online. There are contracts drawn up, an exchange of money, and all the legal paperwork that goes along with that. Along with that process, the US streamer has to negotiate the rights to the music, images, and other copyright elements contained in the series. That doesn’t happen overnight, even for co-produced shows. Airing/streaming premiere dates are only announced when all the checks are cashed, the lawyers on both sides are happy and all the legal paperwork is filed with the feds.
Many delays are due to scheduling conflicts. Networks and streamers have to balance a UK import against their American content. Streamers have many premieres to slot at once. Broadcast and cable channels often program by season (fall, mid-winter, spring, and summer). In the case of Masterpiece, they have to balance shows coming from ITV and BBC whose schedules rarely coincide. Many of the highest-profile/biggest budget UK TV shows will be added into consideration at the Emmys, Screen Actors Guild, and other Hollywood awards. Those ceremonies have submission deadlines and windows of consideration.
Exclusivity is a concept rarely discussed in previous conversations around this topic but must be addressed. Any show that is licensed from the UK and not a co-production means the UK side maintains the first crack at airing or streaming the show. The majority of the UK networks still operate on a weekly release schedule, even if they release all episodes on their streaming service. Sometimes the UK networks air miniseries in a “strip” or 1 episode every weeknight for several nights in a row. Strips are more common around UK bank holidays (their equivalent of federal holidays) or the December holiday season when they know people are off work. BritBox and Acorn have also kept the weekly release format for their exclusives, especially to build up suspense with their thrillers/mystery series. Since the UK paid the majority of production fees, they want control over the series.
Co-productions have to agree to mutual exclusivity or designate one side as the exclusive rights holder. In many cases, this still means the UK will air the series first. The upside to this is a faster turnaround time to the US airing. Usually, if a co-production airs in the US first, this means there was a scheduling holdup in the UK or the US side paid more money to be the exclusive rights holder. An example of the first situation was Victoria Season 3, which aired on Masterpiece on January 12, 2018, several months before the UK release on ITV. Production for the season ran late due to cast schedule conflicts and the series missed its traditional UK slot of the fall season and had to wait for an opening. The Nevers which recently ended on HBO/HBOMax and is now starting on UK Sky is a likely example of the US paying more for first dibs because the show premiered in April at the height of the spring TV season. The downside to the US airing a series first is that the UK is way more likely to see US spoilers on social media than the other way around due to geoblocking.
I hope this post clears up some of the questions you may have about the topic. Part 3 will cover the patterns I’ve uncovered with figuring out which US networks and streamers will pick up which UK series.