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U.S. TV exports: cake or frosting?

HOLLYWOOD — How American pop culture permeates the rest of the world is something of a mystery.

Some of it is by sheer osmosis, but at least a little of it depends on a highly eclectic set of TV execs, some 1,300 of which converged on Hollywood last week for the annual 10-day rite of the LA Screenings.

If kids in Sydney are aping the clothes on “The OC,” if young women in Munich and Manchester are flirting like the girls in “Sex and the City,” and if college students in India want to be forensic scientists a la “CSI,” much of it is because execs from those countries have plopped down the dough for these shows.

In 1989, some 500 execs repping just 30 channels across Europe showed up for the LA Screenings — but they took everything in sight: movies, series, telepics, whatever the majors wanted to dump. Nowadays at least 1,300 execs from around the world repping 1,000 stations, cable nets or satcasters hit town, but they are much more discriminating.

Hollywood’s TV elite know all this — and they know that their livelihoods increasingly depend on the global appeal of their work: That’s why celebs as diverse as Peter Falk (perhaps the most beloved American TV icon in the world today), Teri Hatcher (“Lois and Clark” was huge abroad), Tony Shaloub (yes, “Monk” has caught on abroad) and Kermit show up for the various parties thrown to entertain the out-of-towners.

The new breed of program buyers is more selective and savvy than ever, mainly because television has matured or is rapidly maturing in most countries. Everyone’s gone local, with their own brand of humor, their own dramatic stories to tell — and soon their own locally minted Donald Trumps.

Even writer-producer Steven Bochco graced a shindig on the Paramount lot in support of his latest effort “Blind Justice.” Foreign buyers know who he is and can recite his credits on cue; veterans even remember Norman Lear and the glory days of American comedy; and nowadays, with practically every broadcaster trying to skew young and be “with it,” all of them are attuned to emerging voices and talents.

Thus “Savages” and “Kevin Hill” were among the new crop of shows getting a lot of buzz — “Could Mel Gibson be the next Jerry Bruckheimer?” one Euro buyer mused on these new Icon-produced shows.

These folks will no doubt increasingly emulate the top buyers from the U.K., who traditionally cherry-pick what they think are la creme de la creme of U.S. series.

In one telling deal last week, the intrepid trio of ladies repping BSkyB — Dawn Airey, Sophie Turner Laing and Rebecca Segal — bagged the gritty HBO Western “Deadwood,” signaling a shift in that satcaster’s program strategy. The once cheapo, downmarket, Murdoch-owned upstart is going edgier and more upscale — and taking on established players like BBC 2 and Channel Four.

Another exec, Guillaume de Posch, is indicative of the new-style Continental broadcaster. He’s a polyglot Belgian who worked at French satellite startup TPS and is now CEO of Germany’s ProSiebenSat 1, one of the two powerhouse Teutonic commercial station groups.

De Posch wants his station group to be diverse and multicultural in its management, more nimble in its decisionmaking, more responsive to its shareholders. This in a country that five years ago had one of the stodgiest, most hidebound media cultures in the world.

De Posch tells Variety his own programming tastes are eclectic and that he relishes much in American programming. But there’s nothing slavish in de Posch’s approach. Like most of his confreres, he has no intention of overpaying for U.S. programming. By his reckoning, prices for U.S. product have been trimmed 30% to 40% over the last four years in Germany.

At the same time, he believes U.S. shows like “Sex and the City” and “Cold Case” have helped turn his “Fox-like” station ProSieben into a ratings powerhouse.

In short, American shows are now either the icing on the cake, as in Britain, or an essential ingredient in the mix, as in Germany.

The good news for U.S. producers, says Paramount’s international topper Gary Marenzi, is that each country bakes a different kind of cake, and hence its needs and tastes for American shows are quite diverse.

That’s why trying to identify one single buzzworthy Yank show at the Screenings extravaganza is futile.

What works on one broadcaster may not work on another. An overlooked show from America may end up being the trendiest thing going in Holland, while a very sophisticated drama from the States may only translate well into a few territories.

The unlikely can happen: A baseball-themed drama called “Clubhouse” has been snapped up by a Norwegian station and will pay to fly stars Dean Cain and Jeremy Schumper to Oslo for the local launch.

And if nothing else works, there’s always “Columbo.”

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