Time for Foreign Dramas on US Screens

Friday, June 24th, 2011

DirecTV are doing something interesting with their entertainment channel. On 1st June, they rebranded their ‘101’ channel and it is now called the Audience Network. Its purpose is to show high quality dramas, but from a diverse range of sources. This might sound like the mission of many other networks, but when you dig deeper, the story with DirecTV is slightly different.

For those who don’t know, DirecTV is a satellite subscription service in the U.S. that has previously had little reputation for airing its own content, unlike say Sky in the U.K. However, as Comcast’s deal with NBC-Universal has shown, platform owners and content owners are merging. The 19.2 million subscribers to DirecTV have always had access to the ‘101’ channel, but DirecTV had previously done very little with it. Now that has changed.

However, rather than create and invest in brand new original dramas, DirecTV has noticed some canceled U.S. series retain a core, loyal audience base. Hence, they have taken on Damages and Friday Night Lights, which were initially on FX and NBC respectively, but didn’t secure enough viewing figures to justify those networks recommissioning the series. The Audience Network has also cleverly acquired second window rights to The Wire (which is otherwise only available to HBO subscribers). The diverse source of their dramas doesn’t stop there, though, as they have recently delved in to the international marketplace. They acquired U.S. rights to Australian critical darlings, Underbelly and Rake, as well as Canadian series Call Me Fitz and British series No Heroics and Mutual Friends.

Aussie sensation ‘Underbelly’

 

 

Apart from UK series airing on BBC America and PBS, the U.S. is not known for showing non-US product. Yet DirecTV has seen this as an opportunity rather than a risk.

One of the major trends over the past few years in U.S. broadcasting has been how small cable channels are investing heavily in original content. The fact that AMC, the 27th largest channel in terms of audience share in America, airs one of the most proclaimed series of recent times in Mad Men is testament to this. Yet DirecTV have decided with their Audience Network channel to buck that trend and invest in acquisitions.

It strikes me that other U.S. networks could follow suit here.

There are so many well produced dramas being commissioned all over the world (this will be the topic of a separate blog, but consider South Africa’s Zero Tolerance and Mexico’s El Equipo) that there is bound to be an audience for this type of content in the U.S. Of course, it is likely to be niche, but the majority of cable and premium cable channels have niche audiences – their aim isn’t breadth, rather it is to maximize the value out of their target audience by satisfying their specific viewing demands. Foreign content could easily do this.

Even though some may argue that television is primarily a domestic form, it is undeniable that for a particular segment of the viewing population, nationality is less relevant. It is why, for instance, non-English language films have performed better in the U.S. box office in the past decade. From Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon(which made $128.1m at the U.S. box office) down to the tiny Monsoon Wedding, which was shot on super 16mm and was made reportedly for $1.5m (and earned $13.9m just in U.S. cinemas), American audiences are increasingly appreciating non-US content.

We’ve started to see some signs of this in the U.K. where BBC4 have aired the Danish version of The Killingand back in 2008 also aired French crime drama Spiral. But in the U.S. this has yet to happen for anything other than English language content. (Obviously this doesn’t include Spanish-language series, which airs on channels aimed at the Hispanic diaspora). Given that the season finale of the U.S. version of The Killinggarnered a decent 2.3m viewers last Sunday night on AMC, there must for instance be some demand for seeing Forbrydelsen (the Danish original).

So as channels try to find an extra edge in this highly competitive market, how long will it be before we start to see subtitled series on U.S. television?

 

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