Fall drama lineup focuses on what will play o'seas

With license fees for hourlong TV dramas stuck in the neighborhood of $1 million per episode and production costs increasing substantially every year, international appeal has become a crucial element in the pilot development season.

That trend has now become even more apparent, as the networks unveil their drama development slates for the 1997-98 season.

Quirky shows are few and far between, with the majority of projects under consideration by the webs featuring known names in front of and behind the camera — with plots that are an easy sell abroad.

Writing not stressed

The new mood angers many players, who fear the medium is straying from its traditional emphasis on good writing.

“The bigger the deal, the more people care about it,” laments one top TV agent. “No one cares about a great script anymore; it’s kind of sad.”

But economics are taking precedence. “We have to avoid getting into the trap of creating something that won’t play overseas,” says Greg Meidel, chairman of Universal’s Television Group. “As much as I loved ‘Northern Exposure,’ we can’t afford that kind of hit.”

Indeed, while the domestic rerun value of dramas has been increasing as more cable networks have dayparts to fill, that alone isn’t always enough to justify the cost.

“The cost of producing dramas is outpacing our domestic license fees,” Meidel says. “International has become our backbone for financial success or failure when it comes to one-hour dramas.”

A successful hour drama can command in the neighborhood of $500,000 per episode abroad, while reruns in the U.S. bring in anywhere from $400,000 per episode for average shows to upwards of $1 million for hit dramas.

Movie-inspired projects

ABC has three dramas in development based on recent movies: “Time Cop,” from Universal, “The Player” from New Line Television and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” from Carsey-Werner — plus a fourth drama, “Cracker,” from Kushner-Locke and Granada, based on the hit British series.

While the odds of all four making the final cut may be long, each show brings a theatrical pedigree to foreign buyers.

Action also sells, and with that in mind ABC has several drama pilots with international hit potential, including “ATF” (about female Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents) from Sony’s Columbia TriStar Television Group and Brillstein-Grey; “C-16″ (young FBI agents) from Brillstein-Grey Entertainment; and “Total Security” (a team of security specialists) from Steven Bochco.

It’s a similar story with the other webs. CBS has a police drama in the works from Bochco titled “Brooklyn South,” and a highly anticipated, untitled legal drama starring David Caruso, with John Romano and Nicholas Pileggi behind the scenes, from Sony’s Columbia TriStar Television.

Then there’s the tentatively titled “Rules of Engagement” from Rysher, about a former New York undercover cop turned private investigator. The producers are hoping to land Danny Aiello for the lead.

Also on the Eye web drawing board is a remake of “Hawaii 5-0″ from Stephen J. Cannell and a possible small-screen version of the classic 1960 film “The Magnificent Seven” from MGM/Trilogy.

Besides “Time Cop,” Universal also has a 13-episode commitment from Fox for the drama “Roar,” an epic set in 4th-century Ireland that has been described as ” ‘Braveheart,’ the TV series.”

Payday abroad

No doubt the studio is thinking about a big overseas payoff similar to the success its firstrun action hours “Hercules” and “Xena” have enjoyed.

While international clearly plays a part in the minds of decisionmakers, industry observers also say that network execs continue to be star-struck when it comes time to decide what gets a pilot order.

As an example, agents point to “Listen to This,” a drama Warner Bros. Television is developing about four women in New York City. While the show has a strong script, CBS was said to want Bridget Fonda for the lead; when that didn’t happen, the network’s interest begin to wane. Warner Bros. is still hopeful that CBS will be persuaded to take a chance on the female drama.

It was a similar story for a drama based on the Oscar-nominated film “Fargo,” which went from NBC to CBS to oblivion.

“TV is supposed to be about good writers pitching ideas, and that doesn’t happen anymore,” says another agent.

The paradox, many industry execs point out, is that television is not always kind to returning stars.

Caruso became a star on “NYPD Blue,” but that doesn’t mean viewers will flock to his next show. If the current television season has taught network execs anything, it’s that a big name does not guarantee big ratings. CBS’ results this year with Bill Cosby, Ted Danson and Rhea Perelman on its sked have been mixed at best.

The networks are not totally abandoning risk-taking. While CBS is heavy on action and legal shows, it also has some ghost-themed shows in the works, including “Rag and Bone,” an Anne Rice-inspired series from Columbia about two cops, one living and the other deceased; and “Forever Yours,” about a despondent man who meets a beautiful ghost, from Universal Television and Paul Haggis, exec producer on “EZ Streets.”

Eye web entries

The Eye web is also developing “Rules of the Game,” from 20th Century Fox Television, about a divorce attorney who starts a dating service; and “The Travel Agency,” a Warner Bros. drama in the mode of “Early Edition” that allows people to look at their past and future.

ABC, which is looking to get ratings with risk-taking shows such as the U.S. version of “Cracker,” also has “Nothing Sacred,” from 20th Century Fox Television, about a priest struggling with his faith; “The Doyles,” from Warner Bros., about a working-class Irish family; and “Dogs,” from Disney, about a softball team.

Betting that there is still some life in the medical genre, Disney’s Touchstone Television is also developing “UCLA Medical,” about med students.

Fox’s drama development seems to be going in several different directions. From sister company 20th Century Fox Television, the Clearasil web has a drama produced by David E. Kelley (“Picket Fences”) about a female lawyer, titled “Alley McBeal”; “The Visitor,” a sci-fi drama; “Notorious,” about an unusual crime fighter, from “The X-Files” co-executive producers Glen Morgan and James Wong; and “The Door,” about an inner-city youth center, with Damon Wayans on board producing.

Being in the No. 1 slot means NBC can be more selective. It only has six dramas in development — including “Players,” from “Law & Order” executive producer Dick Wolf, starring Ice-T in a show about criminals who catch criminals.

In the mode of “The Pretender” and “The Profiler,” Columbia is developing “Sleepwalkers,” about scientists who solve people’s problems by entering their dreams; Paramount has a legal drama in the works; and, perhaps looking to give some competition to CBS’ “Walker, Texas Ranger,” NBC Studios is developing “Angel,” described as a modern “Kung Fu,” starring martial arts actor Jeff Speakman, which would also probably play well abroad.

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