Can new ‘Lost’ be found?

Foreign buyers scour to uncover next big hit, but buzz shows will cost 'em

A record number of foreign TV program buyers hit Hollywood this weekend for the annual spring shopping spree known as the L.A. Screenings.

The 10-day viewing marathon is the first chance each season for the international contingent to sift through, and perhaps buy, new American series for their stations back home.

High on their list are likely to be hour dramas such as Warner Bros.’ “The Nine,” Fox’s “Shark,” NBC U’s “The Black Donnellys,” Par’s “Jericho,” Disney’s “Six Degrees” and Sony’s “Kidnapped” — though sometimes a show does emerge out of left field to captivate hard-to-define buyers.

What is clear is that with shows like “Lost,” “CSI” and “Without a Trace” performing well on a variety of stations abroad, the interest in Yank programs has grown exponentially during the last couple of years.

The prices paid for these shows have risen sharply, especially in hotly contested territories such as Britain, Canada and France.

“It’s become a high-stakes poker game,” says Sony Pictures TV Intl. exec VP Keith LeGoy, referring to the maneuverings that take place in Hollywood over one show or another among major buyers.

The game of buying and selling programs is, in fact, replete with all kinds of stratagems, unexpected folds and bluffing.

“That’s because a really strong American series can give a foreign station a competitive edge in its home market. What they choose to buy Stateside at the Screenings is thus a crucial element in a station’s fortunes going forward,” explains LeGoy, who was recently promoted to a senior sales role and relocated from Miami.

And new channels keep popping up in territories from Spain to Singapore. Outlets need more ready-made product, even if the prices the newcomers pay for U.S. shows are not what established mainstream broadcasters fork out when they really want something.

Among the newcomers to the Screenings are a host of retail execs from abroad, whose own homegrown versions of Wal-Mart are busily stocking DVDs of Hollywood TV series.

Also attending in greater numbers are execs from foreign broadband and digital outlets who are beginning to spend for access to Yank content. And the American networks and suppliers are obliging, coming up with brand extensions for their series as well as completely new material for broadband and wireless devices.

The bulk of participants, however, are still the program buyers for the main over-the-air TV stations around the world.

Because no single entity organizes the Screenings as a formal trade show, precise registration is hard to verify, but studios reckon that attendance should easily surpass the 1,500 mark.

Although wining and dining is also part of the protocol — with screenings of “The Da Vinci Code” at Sony and “X-Men 3” at Fox hot tickets — there’s a whole new level of business calculation going on during negotiations these days.

“What we’re having to come to grips with in our business is how and when we want to make digital rights available, to whom and for how much money,” says Warner Bros. Intl. TV president Jeffrey Schlesinger.

Some of these newfangled deals, he points out, will involve the studios’ traditional broadcast partners abroad, while others might be made with phone companies or other digital providers.

“Selling a series used to be relatively easy. The deals now are often much more involved,” Schlesinger says in describing how new platforms and windows are impacting the foreign biz.

All of the U.S. networks made a point of talking up their original and repurposed content for broadband and the Web during their upfront presentations to advertisers last week in New York. How these shows will translate to new platforms abroad — and whether they will be promotional add-ons for the broadcaster in question in each territory or commercializable deals in their own right — is still an open question.

In any case, the likelihood is that hot series will find takers on the spot in L.A. while foreign execs will go home, mull other series options and negotiate for what they think will work for their station during the summer months.

With so many outlets abroad vying for product, it’s hard to pinpoint what works overseas, but as a general rule dramas travel more easily, though edgy, young-skewing comedies also now tickle foreign funny bones.

(The Canadians come to town to buy in bulk, and the three big players in the Great White North — Global, CTV and Chum — acquire virtually the entire U.S. output while at the Screenings.)

Buyers will traipse or be transported from studio to studio during their stay, spending the entire day on the lots of the big suppliers, and a morning or an afternoon at the lesser ones.

Given the many different kinds of deals now common in the international TV biz, some buyers will be in town to see what they have to take — or what they lucked into via their output deals with one or another major. Most will also exercise their chance to pick up the odd series on the open market.

One thing most buyers agree upon is they’d like to see more flexibility in their deals: fewer commitments for life-of-series, not so much library dross, and more help with promotional campaigns, including visits to their territories from the stars.

Moreover, foreign TV station program buyers are not necessarily as enamored of shows that are quintessentially American or require too much inside knowledge — especially if they are from a non-English-language culture.

Thus, “West Wing” was a critical darling in the U.K. and Scandinavia (where serious English-language fare has a following) but failed to wow them in big numbers elsewhere. The same could be said for a number of upscale hours, courtshows and “apple pie” Americana themes. Simpler, higher-concept shows often do better overseas.

The six Hollywood majors are jointly distributing virtually all of the new shows for the five broadcast networks, which include the recently merged WB-UPN, now dubbed the CW.

Warners is fielding the largest batch of new (and for that matter, returning) shows, a dozen among the newcomers, while Fox, Disney and NBC U have more or less a half-dozen each. Sony, which is making a mini comeback in primetime after several lean years, has four series in contention, while Par boasts two dramas, including the eerie “Lost”-inspired “Jericho.”

Fox Intl. TV senior VP Marion Edwards says all three of her fall primetime dramas — “Vanished,” “Shark” and “Standoff” — should attract widespread interest abroad.

“It’s hard to single just one out that will travel well. The first is glossy and fast-paced, the second has James Woods, and the third has intriguing relationships. They should all have a shot.”

Most of the other majors also cautioned against snap judgments as to what might work abroad.

“The foreign market has as many different needs as we have shows — there’s bound to be something for everyone,” is how another major distrib put it.

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