UK TV series take root in Acorn streaming service

LYNN ELBER, AP Television Writer

Here’s an offbeat mystery: Why did detective Hercule Poirot’s final U.S. small-screen bow come not on his familiar stage, PBS, but on a niche website devoted to streaming British whodunits and dramas?

And why did Robert L. Johnson, the business mogul who founded Black Entertainment Television and sold it to Viacom for $3 billion, buy Acorn Media Group and gladden the hearts of Anglophiles everywhere?

The answers lie in a company’s reinvention of itself when faced with industry changes that presented both threat and opportunity.

That’s how Acorn Media Group viewed the advent of streamed content on Netflix and elsewhere several years ago, when the “lines between broadcast and home video became more blurry,” said Miguel Penella, CEO of RLJ Entertainment Inc. and former chief executive of Acorn Media.

The expansion by traditional TV and online outlets into streaming represented increased competition to Acorn Media, founded in 1984 as Atlas Video to sell documentaries on videocassettes.

If PBS, for example, were to air the final Poirot TV movies and retain streaming rights for two years, that could “cannibalize” Acorn Media’s 21st-century version of home video sales, including DVD and Blu-ray, Penella said.

The company’s move in July 2011 was to launch its own streaming service, Acorn.TV, and gain further control over content by buying up intellectual property rights and co-producing series.

So far, that’s given Acorn dibs on the three concluding TV films about Agatha Christie’s famed sleuth, including “Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case,” and made it home to popular series including “Foyle’s War,” “Doc Martin” and Australia’s “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.”

The company’s control of Christie’s work is especially firm. Before it was acquired by RLJ Entertainment, Acorn Media bought a majority interest in Agatha Christie Limited, which owns and represents the late author’s catalog that includes 80 novels and short-story collections, 19 plays and dozens of TV movies.

More recently, there was the release of “The Monogram Murders” by Sophie Hannah, the first Christie family-approved new Poirot novel.

Also from the franchise: a new TV movie adaptation of “Murder on the Orient Express” is in development with Fox.

Brad Adgate, a TV analyst with Horizon Media, said RLJ Entertainment’s approach fits a changing industry and mirrors the evolution of cable channels from rerun havens to a more competitive approach.

Acorn TV and other streaming video websites are “following a programming strategy originated by cable networks several years ago, which is a combination of acquired and original content,” Adgate said.

The main competitors to Acorn are BBC America and PBS’ “Masterpiece” showcase, although public TV isn’t being snubbed, according to Penella. For instance, he said, individual deals are being made with public stations to air the Poirot films by year’s end, with the majority of U.S. markets covered.

“We want consumers to see Acorn TV as an add-on to their entertainment choices. We don’t see it as a substitute for ‘Masterpiece Theatre’ or Netflix or Amazon Prime” or DVDs, Penella said.

Acorn’s target demographic is 40-plus-year-old consumers who are educated, affluent and avid readers. The popularity of programs such as “Sherlock” and “Dr. Who” has begun to pull in younger viewers, Penella said.

Although programs like “Sherlock” can draw several million viewers to PBS, Acorn TV’s paid subscriber base is 100,000-plus — not impressive, but more than four times what it was a year ago. An annual subscription is about $50.

Johnson, who in October 2012 bought Acorn Media Group for $108 million in cash and stock and combined it with independent film-oriented Image Entertainment as RLJ Entertainment Inc., said he is confident Acorn has a “tremendous opportunity to grow.”

“This is an exciting time within the industry, and the Internet and its digital viewing platform allows for thousands of voices to be heard,” Johnson said in a statement.

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