'Downton Abbeys don't grow on trees' : NBCU's Michael Edelstein

By Tara Conlan/ The Guardian Updated at 2013-12-18 07:57:10 +0000


Downton Abbey may seem a quintessentially English drama, yet it ultimately belongs to a US media giant. Carnival, the UK producer of Downton, Whitechapel and Dracula, is owned by NBC Universal (itself a subsidiary of US cable company Comcast), which also owns Made in Chelsea creators Monkey and other British production companies.

Like Downton's own rich American, Cora, NBC Universal (NBCU) has brought money to the table. It is looking to grow its international programme-making business in the UK and elsewhere.

Michael Edelstein, the president of NBCU's international television production business since 2010, says the focus has been on expanding the company in English-language markets, using its channels and distribution business. That worked for Downton Abbey, which returns to ITV on Christmas day with a festive special, because of a "weird" combination of "having the leverage in the market [with the backing of a] US studio and then being given an extraordinary piece of content from [creator] Julian Fellowes and [executive producer] Gareth Neame," Edelstein says.

"We were really able to maximise that and get it to people that might normally not see British drama. We gave it a platform on the back of our US content and got it to buyers who had no intention of buying a UK drama."

But even he, with his background on shows such as Desperate Housewives and CSI, did not expect Downton to become such a global hit. It has sold to more than 200 territories, from China to Iraq – though it airs on PBS rather than NBC in the US – and spawned merchandising ranges in Marks & Spencer. "Downtons don't grow on trees," he says, "but it's certainly changed our perception of what a British drama can do in the marketplace. "First and foremost when you have a product like Downton that people love, they want to connect with it – it gives you a smile to own a teacup or a teatowel or something."

There has been talk of a Downton film, about which Edelstein says: "Julian and Gareth are really passionate about the idea for a theatrical [feature]. I certainly know we would be keen to talk about it. But right now the series is doing so well and there's so much life in it." Fellowes is also due to write what is being billed as a "US Downton", called The Gilded Age, for NBC, but he "hasn't started writing it yet to my knowledge", says Edelstein.

Fellowes has a deal with NBCU for Downton but contrary to some reports it is not a first look arrangement: "He has a strong relationship with Gareth Neame. They like working together and we're keen to entertain any idea that Lord Fellowes has." Fellowes himself says of Edelstein: "It was a marvellous moment, to discover that Michael's enthusiasm for Downton was more than equal to our own. He loves the show and we love him for loving it."

Edelstein says his division is on course to make about $250m in revenue this year. Next to Downton, Canadian detective drama Motive is its most profitable show. "We don't discuss individually what division is doing what but the business has been profitable since I got involved with it," he adds. "A lot of it is the success of Downton and now the success of shows like Made in Chelsea and Motive. We've had Downton over here which has fuelled investment in the division but now we have millions of dollars coming from non-Downton, which is fantastic."

Given the backing of Comcast, which had revenues of $62.6bn in 2012, it is unsurprising there have been reports NBCU is on the acquisition trail. Edelstein says it is looking for production companies that make "scripted and unscripted" programmes, as NBCU has a number of entertainment channels in the US, such as Syfy and Bravo. "What we're looking for are companies that can create [intellectual property] that's really strong in the local markets and that can travel – our channels in the US are hungry for IP."

UK independent producer Monkey has followed that pattern, creating Newlyweds for Bravo and a show for E! called Party On.

NBCU could also be in the market for TV channels. "Comcast is incredibly rigorous about looking at the market and what opportunities present themselves. I would not be surprised if there are future acquisitions. Brian [L. Roberts, Comcast CEO and chairman] and Steve [Burke, CEO of NBC Universal] have said they want to grow internationally so channels I think makes a lot of sense, distribution makes a lot of sense, production makes a lot of sense. It's really about buying things at the right time, at the right price. [Comcast] were very shrewd in their investment for NBC. They bought the company at the right time."

However, he is more circumspect about whether NBCU's international growth could extend to a tilt at ITV. "I can't comment on any of it, and I think they will look at what's there at any particular time and if it adds value above and beyond the transaction they'll consider it," he says.

"I think it's pretty clear from everything that's been said corporately they do desire to grow. I don't think it's an accident our home base is in London, we don't run our international operations from the US like a lot of studios do. They like the fact we have an office in Europe and multiple offices around the world. Their approach is having boots on the ground."

Not all has gone NBCU's way – Christopher Guest's HBO/BBC comedy Family Tree is not returning. Edelstein and his team are also waiting to hear if Sky Living will reorder the Jonathan Rhys Meyers vehicle Dracula.

But on the horizon are Carnival's The Lost Honour for ITV, Peter Morgan's story about Christopher Jefferies, the Bristol man wrongly arrested on suspicion of murdering Joanna Yeates, The 7.39 on BBC1 over Christmas starring David Morrissey and Olivia Colman, and the two remaining parts of the Worricker trilogy by David Hare, which began with the all-star Page Eight. Edelstein reveals this project came about after "I chased David Hare's agency and said 'I just want you to know I want to work with David Hare'. Every time they pitched me a client I said 'what about David Hare?'"

He says there is no "one-size-fits-all approach" to how NBCU keeps hold of the creative talent in the companies it has bought. "Everybody's very well-rewarded – I think that's important as people can choose where to spend their time," Edelstein says. But it is also important to "create an environment where creative people really can thrive, where they're supported. I don't want to mislead you and say we're easy, we have a lot of questions and opinions, but we do all we can to help them deliver the best shows possible."

• This article was amended on 16 December 2013 to make clear that Michael Edelstein said his division was on course to make $250m in revenue this year, not £250m