Fast-Sprouting Acorn Challenges PBS' British TV Dominance | KUOW News and Information

Fast-Sprouting Acorn Challenges PBS' British TV Dominance

Feb 2, 2015
Originally published on February 2, 2015 10:16 am

Today marks the return of a cult public television hit — Foyle's War. It previously appeared as part of PBS's big Sunday night Masterpiece lineup, but it won't be on TV tonight. For now, viewers will have to stream the show digitally. Acorn, the company that produces Foyle's War, has embarked on something of a Netflix strategy — raising the question of whether a niche pay portal can be a going concern.

Acorn has long sold videos and DVDs of the hundreds of hours of U.K. shows for which it holds North American rights. Now it's offering a digital streaming service that gives subscribers instant access to much of its extensive back catalog — and an advance look at programs it produces.

"We want consumers to think of Acorn TV as the primary destination for British mystery and drama television in North America," says Miguel Penella, the CEO of Acorn's corporate parent RLJ Entertainment. It's a brash claim for a market crowded by HBO, the BBC and PBS.

As Acorn expanded its ambitions, it bought a controlling stake in Agatha Christie's literary estate — and is now producing some of her mysteries for TV. The company is betting enough fans of British programs will add one more subscription to their virtual cart, along with Netflix or Amazon prime.

This season is to be the last for Foyle's War. Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle, a senior police official turned intelligence operative at the close of World War II, and his performance has inspired a near-rhapsodic response from critics. But the financing for this season of the show appeared in doubt — so Acorn decided to buy the rights and produce Foyle's War itself, earning much of the cost back from foreign broadcasters

American viewers who want to see it right now will have to pay $5 a month or $50 a year. "For us, it is simply an opportunity to bring our content to consumers in a different, new way," says Penella. Acorn's decision to stream programs itself illustrates how the lines separating distributors, producers, syndicators and networks have blurred.

Good for Acorn, says Rebecca Eaton, the longtime executive producer of Masterpiece — but she argues that PBS has a public mission, while Acorn has a business plan. "To use public broadcasting, to use public television as a platform and a showcase for programs they might acquire," she says, "that's pretty good advertisement for selling them on down the line."

Millions of viewers watch Masterpiece every week for free, and Eaton says her program endures through changes in viewer appetites because of its sustained quality: "I think there's a tremendous interest in high-end British drama," she says. "And I think you can lay that at the feet of Downton Abbey, Sherlock, a lot of the programs we've had on the air — and why wouldn't a business want to spin that particular stuff into gold?"

Acorn says it currently has just 116,000 subscribers, but that's growing. And Penella says its revenues more than justify the cost of producing and streaming shows like Foyle's War: "In recent years, with the convergence of television and the Internet, we saw for us an opportunity to develop a proprietary digital platform that would allow our consumers, our audience to access our deep library — anytime, anywhere," he says.

Foyle's War will run later this year on individual PBS stations, but not on PBS as a network. And if anything, the relationship between PBS and Acorn evokes the frosty rapport between the two matriarchs of Downton Abbey: the Dowager Countess and Isobel Crawley. Collaborators, peers, competitors — in other words, frenemies.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And now to another media platform - the cult public TV hit "Foyle's War" returns today, but tonight it's not on television. Viewers will have to stream "Foyle's War" from Acorn - the company that produces the series. NPR's David Folkenflik reports on Acorn's Netflix-like move and whether this strategy can work for a smaller company.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Acorn has long sold videos and DVDs of the hundreds of hours of U.K. shows for which it holds North American rights. Now it is offering a digital streaming service that gives subscribers instant access to much of its extensive back catalog and an advanced look at programs it produces. Miguel Penella is CEO of Acorn's corporate parent RLJ Entertainment.

MIGUEL PENELLA: We want consumers to think of Acorn TV as the primary destination for British mystery and drama television in North America.

FOLKENFLIK: A brash claim for a market crowded by HBO, the BBC and, of course, PBS. As Acorn expanded its ambitions, it bought a controlling stake in Agatha Christie's literary estate and is now producing some of her mysteries. Acorn is betting enough fans of British programs will add one more subscription to their virtual cart, along with Netflix or Amazon Prime. This season is to be the last for "Foyle's War" in which Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle, a senior police official turned intelligence operative at the close of World War II.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOYLE'S WAY")

MICHAEL KITCHEN: (As Christopher Foyle) Dead body, knife in the back. Nice, straightforward bit of detective work for you. Notice, although the use of the word straightforward this morning, bearing in mind nothing in this place ever is.

FOLKENFLIK: Kitchen's turn has inspired a near-rhapsodic response from critics, but the financing for this season of "Foyle's" appeared in doubt. So Acorn decided to buy the rights and produce "Foyle's" itself, earning much of the cost back from foreign broadcasters. American viewers who want to see it right now will have to pay $5 a month or $50 a year. Again, Acorn's Miguel Penella.

PENELLA: For us it's simply an opportunity to bring our content to consumers in a different, new way.

FOLKENFLIK: Acorn's decision to stream programs itself illustrates how the lines separating distributors, producers, syndicators and networks have blurred. Good for Acorn, says Rebecca Eaton, the longtime executive producer of PBS's Masterpiece, but she argues that PBS has a public mission, while Acorn has a business plan...

REBECCA EATON: To use public television, to use public broadcasting as a platform and a showcase for programs that they might acquire. That's pretty good advertisement for selling them on down the line.

FOLKENFLIK: Millions of viewers watch Masterpiece every week for free.

EATON: I think there's a tremendous interest in high-end British drama, and I think you can lay that at the feet of "Downton Abbey," "Sherlock," a lot of the programs we've had on the air. And why wouldn't a business want to take advantage of that to spin that particular stuff into gold.

FOLKENFLIK: Acorn says it currently has just 116,000 subscribers, but that's growing. And Penella says its revenues more than justify the cost of producing and streaming shows like "Foyle's."

PENELLA: In recent years, with the convergence of television and the Internet, we saw, for us, an opportunity to develop a proprietary digital platform that would allow our consumers - our audience - to access our deep library anytime, anywhere.

FOLKENFLIK: "Foyle's" will run later this year on individual PBS stations, but not on PBS as a network. If anything, the relationship between PBS and Acorn evokes the frosty rapport between the two matriarchs of Masterpiece's "Downton Abbey" - the Dowager Countess and Isobel Crawley.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOWNTON ABBEY")

MAGGIE SMITH: (As Dowager Countess) Missus Crawley's been distracted lately with Lord Merton frisking around her skirts and getting in the way.

PENELOPE WILTON: (As Isobel Crawley) You make too much of it.

SMITH: (As Dowager Countess) Do I?

FOLKENFLIK: Collaborators, peers, competitors - in other words, frenemies. David Folkenflik, NPR News.

GREENE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.