How does one explain the extraordinary success of “The X-Files” internationally when conventional wisdom dictates that only action-packed syndicate fare like “Xena” and “Hercules” can lure audiences abroad?
After all, the show is heavy on dialogue, long on complex plots and short on pratfalls. Just entering its fifth season domestically in the U.S., “The X-Files” is seen weekly in 90 territories around the world.
“It’s not that simple a business anymore,” says Mark Kaner, president of 20th Century Fox international and worldwide pay and pay-per-view TV. “Everything is based on its merits. And in the case of ‘X-Files,’ Chris Carter reopened a genre and nailed it.”
Whether in Algeria, Brunei, Japan or Kenya, “X-Files” has been both a critical and ratings success for local programmers. On Romania’s 18-month-old commercial network PRO-TV, for example, “X-Files” is one of a handful of American shows powering the network to ratings leadership in Bucharest and other cities once dominated by state television TVR.
In Japan, “X-Files” is one of only two U.S.-produced shows airing in primetime (the other is “Chicago Hope”). And in the United Kingdom, on satellite channel BSkyB, “X-Files” is the No. 1 show, followed closely by “The Simpsons.” BSkyB is now available to 6.4 million households in the U.K., about 25% of the available audience. According to the most recent ratings book, “X-Files” was No. 1 in its timeslot among adults 16-34 and adults 16-44.
“It’s a very broad demographic watching the show,” says Les Sampson, the London-based controller of Sky Channels. Hardly a show just for unreformed Trekkies or conspiracy geeks, on a recent September night nearly half the audience of 1.3 million was women. “They’re glued to it,” Sampson says.
In at least some foreign territories, Fox promoted “X-Files” by selling video titles of the show to raise consumer awareness. In the U.K., 410,000 units were sold in the first two months of 1996. And in Japan, where video sales and rentals preceded TV exposure, 15 titles and 324,000 units were sold to the rental market from fall 1994 through February 1996.
In Japan, consumer acceptance of “X-Files” in the rental market was particularly important. Initially, Japanese networks had rejected “X-Files” as a viable addition to programming. But after seeing consumers respond to the show, network honchos had a change of heart. “X-Files” now is one of the top-rated dramas in primetime.
All of which has made “X-Files” a very valuable franchise. Fox executives decline to say how much revenue foreign sales are generating for their company. But, Kaner allows: “No doubt about it, ‘The X-Files’ is one of the biggest all-time successes we’ve had in the international marketplace.”
Perhaps with the help of 20/20 hindsight, execs say they are not surprised by the widespread international acceptance of “X-Files.” After a slow start, buyers were lining up: “Once they got caught up in the characters and stories and saw the consistency that Chris Carter was delivering with scripts and stories, it became an easy sell,” Kaner recalls.
“The show has themes that are universal,” Sampson says. “People of all cultures love mystery, they love the underdog fighting a system and they love the idea of ‘who can we trust?’ and ‘who can’t we trust?'”