On Wednesday night, the Obamas, the Camerons and UK Treasury chief George Osborne broke bread at the White House with Downton Abbey’s Lord and Lady Grantham themselves, Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern. Today, it looks like they might have discussed more than just Mary and Matthew’s wedding plans. When the British government unveils its new budget next week, Osborne is expected to announce a consultation on a tax break for producers of so-called “high-end” TV shows like Downton Abbey, reports say. The move is an effort to stem runaway production and is also eyed as a way to encourage foreign shows to come to the UK. Britain’s “cinematic” TV industry is a £2.2 billion business with Downton Abbey among the rare exceptions of shows produced at home. (The upcoming Titanic miniseries, written by Downton creator Julian Fellowes, was produced in Canada and Hungary.) The shows eligible for the break would be productions that cost £1 million an hour or more to produce. In order to qualify, they would need to pass a cultural test to prove their Britishness with at least 25% of spend occurring in the UK. Alternatively, projects could be eligible under an agreed co-production treaty.
A tax credit for films already exists in the UK and offers as much as a 25% break on pictures shot locally. The scheme has helped boost production with more than 200 films supported in 2010 alone, including Warner Bros’ final Harry Potter installment. A recent report by consulting firm RSM Tenon and media law specialist Wiggin LLP estimates that a tax incentive for big budget shows “would transform the world TV economy” and would make the UK the location of choice for local and international producers. The groups estimate an additional £350 million of production spend would be generated each year. In a statement regarding the break, Fellowes said: “British television is second to none but unfortunately, time and time again, great British programs are being made overseas where the tax climate is more favorable. If the budget can address this, it would be a fantastic move forward for our industry and the country as a whole, as a host of new productions would undoubtedly be produced here. As they certainly should be.”