ABC’s Howard Thomas on selling The Avengers to the United States
The Avengers was happening at a time when I was encouraging ABC-TV’s parent company, ABPC, to invest a million pounds in a filmed television series. At Elstree studios the corporation had made several half-hearted sallies into TV film series like Flying Doctor and International Detective but none of them had recovered their costs. Meanwhile Lew Grade had followed up the Robin Hood filmed series he had inherited from Hannah Weinstein by making The Saint, with Roger Moore, and Danger Man, starring Patrick McGoohan.
Ten years ago , the economics of one-hour drama series was that the production cost per episode of a series on videotape like The Avengers or Callan, with two weeks in rehearsal followed by two days in the television studios, was £10,000 ‘above the line’ plus another £10,000 for studio costs and overheads. ‘Above-the-line’ means the actual cash expenditure on actors, writers, sets and costumes. In television, artists’ and writers’ fees are based on a single performance in the United Kingdom, with additional payments for repeats and for overseas sales.
A similar script, produced in a film studio at the normal average series rate of five minutes a day, would take two weeks of full studio usage, plus the consequent cost of editing and dubbing music and sound effects. Such film costs averaged £40,000 for a one-hour episode, but this included world rights on actors’ performances and writers’ scripts. The ITV network would pay £20,000 for two transmissions of these films, so the producer would still need to collect another £20,000 from world sales to recover his costs. Earnings on this scale were almost impossible to achieve unless the series was sold to America, either through a network or syndicated to a few hundred individual stations. Only ATV and ABC ever succeeded in breaking into the American networks, although years later the BBC managed to get one or two of its costume play series and documentaries transmitted. Partly because of my contention that a filmed series of The Avengers would bring a year’s work to Elstree studio stages the Board of ABPC finally agreed to let me spend the million pounds on twenty-six one-hour programmes in black-and-white film.
Julian Wintle was a feature film producer with a reputation for producing consistent films of quality on a commercial basis, and we had already gone through a trial run in making The Human Jungle, a series he brought to ABC. Wintle’s particular skill was in the editing of film and his post-production touches could provide the gloss and glamour The Avengers demanded. I put all the elements of a successful television series at his disposal; producers, directors, script editors, writers, designers, and cast, and to all this he added his own skills, aided by his production supervisor Albert Fennell.
Honor Blackman seemed almost irreplaceable until we came across another actress who was both beautiful and accomplished. Having lost our Cathy Gale to James Bond the script editors invented a new character, Emma Peel. The name was coined by a press officer on the ABC series, Marie Donaldson, based on: ‘Man appeal – m. appeal – Emma Peel! See?’
Wintle and I scrutinised all the rushes and the rough cuts of the first three episodes. They were depressing. The actress was not right for the part. The three episodes were not good enough. I had to make a bitter decision. At a cost of the £120,000 already spent, I had to halt production and find a replacement.
Everyone connected with The Avengers and Drama Department came up with suggestions for a new ‘Emma Peel’ and we made screen tests of a dozen young actresses. Many were promising, yet not sufficiently outstanding. Then Dodo Watts, our casting director, asked me to look at an actress she had cast for an Armchair Theatre comedy. The play had just been recorded but not transmitted, and we played it back on closed circuit. The actress was a member of Peter Hall’s Royal Shakespeare Company and she was attractive, intelligent, combative and had a fine sense of comedy. She came to Elstree studios for a film test and (for this was vital) to play a scene opposite Pat Macnee. The chemistry worked – they were perfectly partnered. Diana Rigg was signed up on a long-term contract to play the part.
Our overseas sales were then being handled by Bob Norris, a Californian who, as a consequence of marrying an English girl, settled in Britain. Although interest had been aroused in the States, in spite of the rather fuzzy telerecordings of earlier videotaped episodes, there was no sign of a sale to any of the three major US networks. With half the filmed series completed, and half a million pounds spent, the situation began to look desperate. Norris and I flew to New York to tackle the network bosses.
It was the worst week of my television life. Every day we would set forth from the Gotham Hotel with our cans of film, our charts and statistics, and plod around Manhattan, talking to executives and screening episodes to potential buyers. Every evening we would slump back into our chairs in the hotel and hope for the telephone to ring.
Both NBC and CBS continued to show interest but we encountered the inbuilt antipathy to British accents and lack of pace which the British film industry has rarely been able to overcome. Again, we discovered, the programme buyers in top jobs at the network were cautious and unadventurous, because their livelihood depends upon successful decisions and they were judged by results at the end of every season. The “mortality-rate’ of such American network executives has always been alarming.
Then I had a stroke of good fortune. I had known for many years the president of the ABC network, Leonard Goldenson, who had come into television from the film world of Paramount and on several occasions he had visited our company, ABPC, in London. An anglophile, he appreciated the quality of British production in films, theatre and television, and he was most helpful and encouraging. However, sometimes nothing can be more fatal than a boost from the boss, and a recommendation or even an instruction from the front office can be the kiss of death to a hopeful performer or producer. Luckily, Tom Moore, the ABC programme executive, had screened several episodes of The Avengers with increasing interest, and this confirmation of his own judgment proved to be timely.
By Friday morning, our last day in New York, Norris and I found ourselves with two final hurdles to overcome. The films were in black-and-white and the networks were insisting that all series should now be filmed in colour. We talked our way out of this on the thin excuse that The Avengers would have the distinction of being the last TV series sold to America in monochrome. One remaining hope had been to get the series into the network schedule during the summer months, when the regular programme series were off the air. Otherwise the only chance was that our series could be a replacement for one of the other new series which collapsed in the early months of a new season.
ABC said they might be willing to take the first thirteen programmes on this basis in black-and-white. If by some miracle the series succeeded and they wanted more, then we would have to go into colour for the second thirteen. The other difficulty was the ‘unknown’ girl who was starring in the series. Now that a sale was within sight flocks of ABC executives came to screenings of the episodes to inspect the product they might be handling in their respective departments. They all thought her very good, but she was completely unknown. They had never heard of her. She was not even a British star! What the series needed, they were certain, was a bright young American starlet in the part of Emma Peel.
I refused. The essence of The Avengers was its Englishness. That was the quality which basically appealed to them and I insisted it would also be a reason for winning a new audience; something totally unlike any American series. We held on, and Diana Rigg stayed in, to become a television star in the United States as well as throughout the world. Long after, Diana was besieged by all three American networks to appear in a series of her own, built around her, at her own price. Ultimately the vehicle designed for her followed a typical American pattern and could indeed have been played by an American actress, but it failed to be a series of which Diana Rigg could be proud.
Back we came to London, with thirteen episodes sold, to try to convert the remaining episodes to colour, even though we would have to go above budget. Weeks of waiting went by, until the first Nielsen Research audience ratings were telephoned to us. Then came the cable when ABC took up the options for the second thirteen and, with the series already leaping into popularity, an option for another twenty-six in colour. The Avengers developed into a cult in the United States and even today when I go to New York repeats are still running in the small hours.
A happy moment was when the contracts were signed and we announced the sale to the United States, forecasting how many millions of dollars the series was going to bring to Britain. The Evening Standard headlined this as the biggest television deal ever made with the United States. Within an hour of publication a furious Lew Grade was on the telephone to me yelling that it wasn’t the biggest deal. His were always the biggest deals! In fact The Avengers ultimately earned ten million dollars overseas and revenue is still coming in.
The most pleasing aspect to me was that we had produced the series to British standards and not to American requirements. This has always been the difference in attitudes towards overseas sales between Lew Grade and myself. He has always preferred to run two business operations: his ATV franchise in the Midlands, and then his other output of programmes designed specifically for the American market. Sometimes I have jokingly reminded him that he should be concentrating on Birmingham, England, rather than Birmingham, Alabama. My policy for the two companies I started was, first, to satisfy the British audience. If in accomplishing that we could achieve international standards of quality we should be able to sell such programmes overseas. This seems to be the BBC policy, as well, and I think that our moderate success in the United States with programmes of quality has done much to maintain the high reputation of British drama and documentaries in America. Our policy has certainly been justified in the important market of Australia where British television programmes, primarily BBC and our own, have overtaken American products.
The American networks remain a difficult target and at the time of writing Sir Lew appears to have given them up, too, and instead has turned to producing feature films for the cinemas. The gamble of making television film series for the American market has become enormous. The production cost of The Avengers (and I presume The Saint too) rose from £40,000 to £60,000 per episode. Today  it would cost more than £80,000 to produce an Avengers of comparative quality. To make the required minimum series of twenty-six would cost two million pounds, a venture few would contemplate with optimism. Series like The World at War were not accepted by the American networks, mainly because there is no room in their schedules for series of twenty-six one-hour documentaries; but by slogging away around the United States, city by city, our distributors sold this series to 64 individual stations in the principal cities and earned $1,500,000. The remaining outlet is the Public Broadcasting System, to which sponsors donate programmes. Payments are low but prestige is high, and it is here that American viewers have seen and acclaimed British drama series like Upstairs, Downstairs, and Thames’ Jennie, Lady Randolph Churchill.