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TV buyers hit the town

Tube execs H'w'd bound

HOLLYWOOD — A record 1,300 foreign TV station program buyers hit town today to begin the marathon viewing extravaganza known as the L.A. Screenings. Eastern Europeans and Asians have swelled the ranks, which usually top out at 1,000.

The buyers are in town to sift through the latest “CSI” and “Law & Order” installments as well as a host of just announced primetime hopefuls for the U.S. skeds.

This go-round there are more dramas and reality skeins than laffers ordered by the Big Six — in theory a good thing for foreign buyers as comedy doesn’t travel that easily abroad.

Warner Bros. is once again fielding the largest contingent of new shows, 18, while Fox, Disney and Paramount also have sizable arsenals. MGM is repping five new shows produced by and airing on NBC as well as its own “Stargate Atlantis” (for the Sci Fi Channel).

“This time things are more complicated for the foreign buyers,” Fox Intl. TV exec VP Marion Edwards told Daily Variety. “In many cases sellers have just presentations rather than pilots. In some others, shows are being recast and reshot. There are summer, fall and midseason grids to consider.”

In all, the Big Six nets unveiled an unprecedented 50-odd new shows, many of which don’t yet have an American airdate.

Among her own offerings, Edwards pointed to the animated midseason hopeful “American Dad” and to the latest David E Kelley drama “Fleet Street” as having likely international appeal.

Over at Paramount, intl. TV topper Gary Marenzi is bullish about several of his pickups, including Stephen Bochco’s latest drama “Blind Justice,” which will inherit “NYPD Blue” ‘s time slot once that series ends in January.

“It looks like a great year for us,” Marenzi said, adding that meetings with some key foreign clients have already begun.

Canadians are the only foreign buyers who come to buy in bulk as their skeds are set literally days after the Screenings conclude.

By contrast, the major European buyers tend to pick and choose from among the offerings they’re not already obliged to take through their output deals with one or another Hollywood major.

Unless a new show is hot or they have a gaping slot to fill, most of these execs turn up their noses at everything on offer and say they’ll wait until fall to see if anything sticks. This year many buyers are facing the loss of “Friends” and “The Practice” on their stations back home and will be looking for something to replace these stalwarts.

The slow but seemingly inexorable move to a year-round development season by the U.S. networks means that foreign buyers of programming will have even less reason to fork out on the spot for new shows.

A dozen dramas don’t even go to air Stateside until at least January. In most cases buyers will want to see ratings data from the States before deciding on whether to commit to one or another new show.

There won’t be any performance data on shows like Steven Bochco’s “Dark Justice” or Dick Wolf’s “Trial by Jury” until they’re scheduled sometime in midseason; if foreign buyers fork out for these shows now, they’ll be banking on the reputation of these two producers rather than the finished product.

BSkyB’s new rep in L.A., Rebecca Segal, told Daily Variety that the new year-round development means foreign buyers will begin to take a look at their buying strategy and the importance they attach to the Screenings.

She has, for example, for the first time prepared a summer grid for her bosses in London because so many new shows now premiere during that frame. The Rupert Murdoch-owned satcaster BSkyB is the biggest buyer of American product in the U.K. (Segal formerly repped the BBC in the U.S.)

Whatever the reaction to this more diluted seasonal approach to introducing shows, the 10-day sales bazaar is the first chance for station execs from abroad to view upcoming network series hopefuls. U.S. shows still play a crucial filler role on foreign skeds, though only the top-tier hits play in primetime abroad.

The international contingent is looking for another “Simpsons” or “ER” or “CSI” — and hoping they can get away with not paying an arm and a leg for it.

The good news is that the Germans, once the biggest spenders for American TV shows, are back, having last year spent $560 million on U.S. product for their terrestrial stations, up 40% from the previous year, though still down on the record $660 million they blew back in heady 1999.

Brits are also major though choosy buyers, with each of the four terrestrial nets essentially cherry-picking each year two or three U.S. shows to fit their station profile. U.K. nets as a whole spent $460 million in 2003, down 7% from the previous year.

Richard Sattler, the L.A. rep for several Scandi station buyers, already has his top 10 picks ready to distribute to his clients: Series he believes would work abroad include “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Joey” and a sports action reality hybrid called “Next Action Hero,” which airs this summer on NBC.

The Screenings kick off with several dozen indie suppliers of product holed up at the Century Plaza and the Park Hyatt to waylay foreign buyers, especially buyers from Latin America.

The Hollywood majors, which rep most of the new primetime series except, most notably, for the “CSI” franchise (which is handled abroad by indie Alliance Atlantis), will herd groups of buyers onto their lots for all-day screenings throughout next week.

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