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The Fast Five: The UK Is Saying “Show Us the Money” As TV Budgets Soar

October 28, 2019
5 min read time

As the weather gets colder, we gather inside for the annual tradition of rating which new TV shows we like enough to watch next year when they show up on a streaming service. With budgets and British sales both hitting an all-time high, and IMDb hoping to lure box office aficionados to its subscription service, money is positively flying around the TV world at the moment. And, of course, Marvel is in the news again because everything is Disney and Disney is everything.


Good storytelling can stretch across any number of platforms, and nobody has demonstrated this better than the writers at Marvel, who have managed to weave tales through comics, TV shows, movies, video games, board games, and novels. Now, podcasts can be added to that list. Marvel has teamed up with SiriusXM and Pandora for a slate of scripted podcasts featuring Wolverine, Black Widow, Star-Lord and Hawkeye to premiere in 2020. Satellite radio—originally thought to be the thing that would usher in the death of traditional radio—has seen its user-base fall thanks to the popularity of podcasts, proving that any company not offering on-demand services will find itself losing subscribers in a world where we get to choose when and where we consume content. SiriusXM is jumping into podcasts in a big way and hopes that the popularity of Marvel and its proven history of creating strong and addicting narratives will be the thing to bring people back to the service. 


Remember when Netflix wanted to make a splash with pricey high-budget dramas? Two of its first shows, Marco Polo and Sense8, were some of the most expensive of all time, with $9 million an episode budgets. That was four years ago, and since then, the industry has shifted in such a way that those prices feel quaint in comparison to what networks are dishing out today. In a new article, Variety explores the current television gold-rush that is driving budgets out of control. When HBO’s $11 million an episode high school drama Euphoria would crack the top five most expensive shows of all time five years ago, you know something is up. Netflix’s Ted Sarandos said that the most competitive series have seen a 30% budget increase from last year, now that new buyers like Apple and Disney are shelling out what Variety is reporting as high as $15 million an episode for The Morning Show and The Mandalorian, and as much as $17 million for the blind post-apocalyptic epic See

How are networks supposed to compete when the cost of television is at an all-time high? How about going the other direction? One of 2019’s most talked about shows was the British comedy Fleabag; made for a fraction of the cost of the blockbuster shows it upstaged. Hulu has also found success with comedies Shrill and Pen15, as well as Canadian cult-favorite Letterkenny. Restrictions can spurn creativity, it’s why bottle episodes can be some of the best in a show’s run. In a race to the top, it seems the easiest way a network can differentiate itself is with smaller shows that need to focus on strong storytelling and interesting narratives to compensate for not having a big budget.


Everybody’s favorite box office tracking website is slowly getting put behind a paywall, now that IMDb is integrating Box Office Mojo into its IMDbPro subscription service. The website itself has been given an overhaul to prioritize mobile visitors, so it will come as a shock to desktop visitors who visit for the first time since the redesign. While this news may not seem like a big deal, it does demonstrate how companies try to profit from the digital brands they integrate into their portfolios, and how literally everything is slowly moving towards a monthly subscription model. Some of Box Office Mojo’s assets, including historic data and genre-specific box office breakdowns, will now be behind the paywall and available only to IMDbPro subscribers. IMDb’s premium service is designed for industry professionals and actors as a way to gain more in-depth information on production companies and different creatives. Most box office information will still remain free…for now. But it’s not hard to imagine that this move wasn’t made unless IMDb planned to slowly integrate more of Box Office Mojo into IMDbPro.


PACT, the UK trade association that represents independent producers, released its annual TV Export Reports which revealed a new all-time record for sales of UK television around the world. The 2018/19 TV season was worth an estimated $1.8 billion to UK producers, with dramas making up almost half of all sales. Surprisingly, comedies were only worth 7% of all sales, despite hits like Fleabag proving that British comedy travels well internationally. UK’s dense slate of factual programming, like the popular nature shows that all seem to be narrated by David Attenborough, account for nearly a quarter of the sales. As more streaming services pop up around the world, the demand for quality content is only going to increase. To the surprise of nobody who has seen the British invasion on Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, The United States made up over a third of all sales worth $569 million. This explains why so many BBC employees seem to be leaving to launch their own production companies; everybody wants their own piece of the streaming pie and the money that comes with it. 


It’s that time of year again when network TV debuts its new season of television, desperately hoping to pitch something people are willing to watch the day and time the networks tell them to. But that’s just not how the world works anymore. I want to watch Bob Hearts Abishola at the day and time of my choosing. Probably all at once, three years from now, because I have that option. The new season has not seen anything close to a hit, but we’ve still had two renewals. Fox renewed Sunday animated series Bless the Harts, from Up All Night creator Emily Spivey, and CBS renewed its drama Evil, from BrainDead creators Michelle and Robert King. Unfortunately, there have already been two unofficial cancelations, with NBC pulling Bluff City Law and Sunnyside off the schedule with no back orders for either. 

Over in the premium cable world, HBO is celebrating the fall season by trying to stop seasonal churn as viewers unsubscribe until the next big show appears. The network is presenting viewers with two high-profile genre shows it hopes will replace Game of Thrones and keep people subscribing. The Leftovers creator Damon Lindelof premiered his sequel series to the original Watchmen comic that has people buzzing with its depiction of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. In a show like Watchmen, which takes place in an alternate version of Earth where events unfolded differently to our own—most notably, superheroes winning The Vietnam War—many viewers assumed the riot was a fictional event. This has led to a flood of articles enlightening people to a real part of America’s past that doesn’t get high priority in school lesson plans. Next up, and hoping to create the same amount of conversation, is an adaptation of popular fantasy novel series His Dark Materials. The BBC co-production launches this weekend and, paired with Watchmen and the final season of Silicon Valley, should keep HBO in good shape and take viewers to January when The Outsider, starring Jason Bateman and based on a Stephen King story, will be the next premium show standing between subscribers and seasonal churn.


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