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Euro Sudser Hopes To Wash Away Borders

Getting Western Europeans to agree on a single currency is child’s play compared to Larry Lamattina’s task: He’s hoping to get them all hooked on the same soap opera.

Although American potboilers like “Dynasty” have enjoyed popularity across Europe for years, no European-made soap has ever captured the continent.

But now comes “Riviera,” a $40 million pan-European soap from EC TV being lensed in France. It’s an attempt to provide increasingly cash-strapped European broadcasters with lowcost strippable programming.

“Riviera” revolves around the lives, loves and power plays of the De Courcey dynasty. Family’s roots are aristocratic, but its money now comes from the perfume business.

Lamattina, CEO of EC TV, and many others smell success, though some in the biz are branding the show a mishmash of Eurotrash that is less art than art of the deal.

Deal is that broadcasters who bought the show as a presale had some say in the development of characters of their own nationality. They include not only France’s TF-1, Italy’s Rete-4 and Studio Hamburg, but Britain’s Granada TV, and Spain’s regional “Forta” stations. Final creative control rests with EC TV.

The programming arm of the multinational advertising conglomerate Inter Public Group, New York-based EC TV spent two years planning a show that would graft U.S. production expertise onto European subject matter.

The idea was to shoot for the lowest common denominator in popular programming and then put into longterm operation an assembly line to churn it out. U.S. consulting talent, such as John (“As The World Turns”) Valente and Robert (“Loving”) Scinto, are advising the production and supposedly helping to give it a glossier, pacier feel.

The first batch of 260 episodes is being turned out at an average cost of $150,000 each, slightly above the cost of U.S. soaps but far cheaper than miniseries. This week a mainly French cast and crew will be shooting episodes 48 to 52 – one a day, a normal production sked for U.S. soaps but unheard of in most of Europe.

Sales are reportedly being finalized with broadcasters in Benelux, Scandinavia and Greece during the Monte Carlo TV Market. In addition to U.K. rights, Granada TV is handling sales outside Europe and North America. It is not yet clear if the soap will air on the ITV commercial net in Britain, of which Granada is one of the most influential.

Show debuts on TF-1 in March in an early fringe slot, then next fall on Berlusconi’s Rete 4 and on Germany’s ARD network. It is reportedly “slightly hotter” in the treatment of sex than its U.S. equivalents. “Deeper cleavages, but nobody’s topless” was how one source put it.

The “European” style and subject matter of “Riviera” are meant to make it more attractive to the local audiences on the Continent. But to others, such programming is anathema.

“A storyline which evolves because of the deal rather than a single writer’s creative impetus doesn’t really satisfy the needs or tastes of any single national viewership,” said one U.K. media critic, adding, “it could be a recipe for Europudding, an unmitigated disaster.”

Others argue style and storylines of “Riviera” are 10 years out of date. “Dallas” and “Dynasty” are petering out in the ratings all over western Europe.

Lamattina isn’t fazed. “We are reflecting a reality that a lot of viewers will be interested in.”

Whatever its fate on European tv, EC TV says it will have recouped its costs on the show even without an American sale. “That’s the new reality about Europe,” says Doug Gluck, senior v.p. EC TV. “If you know what you’re doing, you can make money without having a U.S. commitment upfront.”

Lamattina and Gluck believe even the U.S. nets will be interested in “Riviera,” however.

“With their growing need for cheaper programming and the reassurance that U.S. talent worked on it, why wouldn’t they go for it? We think the time has come.”

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