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BSkyB pulls trigger on ‘Deadwood’ deal

Shift in strategy to secure most talked-about skeins

In the first high-profile deal inked at the L.A. Screenings, Britain’s BSkyB bagged the Paramount-distribbed “Deadwood,” HBO’s gritty take on the Old West from creator David Milch.

The multi-year commitment to the series suggests Sky is high-shifting its programming strategy to secure as many of the most talked-about series on U.S. TV as it can. In the past few years, the Rupert Murdoch-owned satcaster has quietly become the top acquirer in Britain of American movies and series.

No figure was available for the deal, but top-tier U.S. dramas have recently gone for as much as $100,000 an episode in the U.K.

Meanwhile, “Girls That Don’t,” a low-profile laffer for cable from indie Carsey-Werner-Mandabach, has clinched a deal with the BBC — in a year when only a few sitcoms were ordered by the Big Six and the entire genre has fallen out of favor.

C-W-M, home of “Third Rock From the Sun” and the recently axed “Whoopi,” is known for its subversive humor — a tone that appeals to the British sensibility. Deals for the sitcom, which will premiere on Oxygen next week, were also inked with Canada’s Global and New Zealand’s NZTV.

A good fit

As for the dark and often graphic “Deadwood,” BSkyB head of content James Baker told Daily Variety that the HBO series is exactly the kind of show the flagship channel Sky One wants to emphasize on its sked. The channel already airs two other edgy imports, “24” and “Nip/Tuck.”

“We’re trying to widen our audience and attract another kind of viewer that likes edgier, highly original material,” Baker said.

Also representing the satcaster in L.A. during the Screenings are Sky Networks managing director Dawn Airey, chief program buyer Sophie Turner Laing, acquisitions exec David Smith and the company’s L.A.-based rep, Rebecca Segal.

“The Sky team saw ‘Deadwood’ early and appreciated it. They don’t let grass grow under their feet there. They took the leap,” said Paramount Intl. TV prexy Gary Marenzi.

He added that the show’s “cutting-edge distinctiveness” should entice buyers from other countries to put their cards on the table as well.

High-profile HBO series “Sex and the City” (which is also distribbed abroad by Paramount) and “The Sopranos” (handled internationally by Warners) both air on Channel Four in the U.K.

Cherry-picking

There are few if any output deals in the U.K., which means that all five of the main British players cherry-pick U.S. shows for their skeds.

Meanwhile, the 1,300 foreign program buyers continued to trek from one studio to another to view upcoming dramas and sitcoms that will air on the fall skeds of the Big Six networks.

Marenzi said it was too early to clinch significant deals on his upcoming series as not all buyers from each territory had seen them yet, but he added that interest in the latest Steven Bochco series, “Blind Justice,” was “off the charts.”

And MGM’s top sales exec, Simon Sutton, said he had commitments with pan-regional cable services in Latin America for four out of the five new NBC shows the Lion is repping in the international market, including “Hawaii” and “Revelations.”

Sutton said he thought there was no single “standout show” at the Screenings but that different shows suit different foreign buyers.

Meanwhile, buyers were predictably circumspect in their pronouncements but fairly pleased with this year’s product.

The BBC’s chief buyer, George McGhee, said he had so far found the offerings interesting, though he cautioned that the Beeb doesn’t have many timeslots that need filling with U.S. product. McGhee will assess his team’s views on the shows at week’s end.

Among shows McGhee thought had potential were the David E. Kelley spinoff of “The Practice” called “Fleet Street” as well as the “promising” “Point Pleasant” — both series distribbed by Fox. “Desperate Housewives,” from Disney, got a thumbs up as well, though McGhee thinks the show would be difficult to schedule. He called C-W-M sitcom “Good Girls Don’t” “smart and hilarious” and said it would likely be a good fit for BBC 2.

Strong dramas

A key exec with Italian pubcaster RAI, Giancarlo Leone, told Daily Variety that he was pleasantly surprised with the quality of American drama series but disappointed in the selection of sitcoms.

“European TV audiences are not interested in typically American stories detailing U.S. lifestyles and habits,” the chief exec of RAI Cinema said. The crop of one-hours he’s seen so far, especially at Warners and Disney, have been of higher quality than in recent years, he said, while the laffers keep getting sillier and more narrow in focus.

He added that RAI was “very interested” in acquiring U.S. dramas for primetime and access slots — something of a shift, since most American series have been relegated to off-peak or weekend hours for the past few years on all major European broadcasters.

A bigger share of the Italian pubcaster’s program acquisition budget is going toward series and away from telepics.

“We have very little interest in TV movies and fewer slots for them, and in any case, there seem to be fewer being produced here.”

No deals for a month

Leone said the pubcaster would likely not sign any deals while in L.A. but rather sometime in June.

Frank Mulder, the chief acquisitions exec for the Dutch pubcasting org NOS, said he really liked Disney’s “Desperate Housewives” — “very spicy and very dramatic” — as well as Warners sitcom “Joey.”

In the complicated Dutch market, NOS typically has to weave and bob to get its hands on top series, as the commercial stations have output deals with most of the Hollywood majors and hence have first dibs on the hot series.

Finally, Network Ten Australia’s top exec David Mott said, “We liked all the product Universal and Paramount showed us, and if they work Stateside should be quite usable for us,” adding that he was pleased to see how prolific are the two studios with which he has output deals.

He especially singled out U’s drama “House,” which he pointed out has a great timeslot on Fox, and sitcom “Savages” as well as Par dramas “Blind Justice” and “Medical Investigations.”

As for the upcoming installment of the “Law & Order” franchise, Mott said the first three do “extraordinarily well” in Oz and he’s excited about “Trial by Jury.”

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