US TV series distribution: a two-speed market

Normally, I wouldn’t subject you to the full horror of an analyst’s press release, but for once – I don’t know what the cause is, but it could be the dawning of the Age of Aquarius or something – it’s actually almost interesting and relevant:

US TV series distribution: a two-speed market
Tim Westcott, Senior Principal Analyst at IHS Technology

Key points: 

  • Production of original scripted series is continuing to grow in in the US. IHS Technology noted 324 drama and comedy (scripted) series produced by the big five networks, basic and pay cable, and online platforms in 2015, compared to 297 in 2014.
  • More than three quarters of new and returning shows launched in the latest network season (2015/2016) had sold to one or more of the key international territories at the time we closed our research.
  • The increasing roll out of online platforms, combined with the strategy of pay TV platforms to migrate US series quickly to their home markets, have led to a dramatic shortening of international release windows. In the UK, the average window was 37 days, down from 102 days.


A key focus for our research is to track the distribution of original US series to the international market, by analysing how quickly US series migrate to four key territories: the UK, Australia, France and Germany. Those series that have sold internationally are migrating much more quickly that they did even than last year.

In this year’s report, we note a pronounced change in the timing between US and international release. The biggest change is France, where the average window from US release was only 32 days, compared to 159 in 2014/2015. In the UK, the average window was 37 days, down from 102 days, while in Australia—another country where US series do not need to go through the time-consuming process of being dubbed—the window was 37 days compared to 120 in 2014/2015. In Germany, the average window was 61 days, down from 170 the season before.

Research clearly indicates that ‘the Netflix effect’—the policy of the streaming service to launch its originals simultaneously across all of its territories—has transformed the TV distribution business over the last couple of years.

However, in a market like France, where viewers are accustomed to watching US series dubbed rather than subtitled, programmes can still take many months to make the transition. French viewers may even be a whole season behind the US for established shows like CSI or Castle, and furthermore many of the US series aired by linear TV networks in France are second runs of shows that have made a debut elsewhere.

For this reason we see France as a two-speed distribution market—with US series moving quickly to online and premium pay but more slowly to other networks. The same is true of Germany; other than on Netflix, few US series make a fast transition.

UK: Sky indulges its appetite for US acquisitions with HBO and Showtime

In the UK, pay TV remains much more likely to air US series than free TV networks. Pay TV accounted for 49% of US acquisitions in 2015/16, compared to 17% for free-to-air and 34% for online. This is partly a matter of programming policy—the two top-rated channels BBC1 and ITV generally only broadcast home-grown programming in prime time, apart from the occasional film—but it’s also because pay TV tends to outbid free TV for the most popular programming.

Sky has so far scheduled a total of 30 US series from the 2015/2016 season across its networks. Sky Atlantic, which has become an increasingly important part of its overall offering, airs HBO series under an output deal and will become the home of all Showtime series under the new multi-territory agreement closed in January this year. New seasons of Game of Thrones, Girls and Togetherness all aired within at least one day of the US.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.