In 2006, more U.S. series have rolled out in Spanish primetime than at any time in last 20 years

The same liberal Spaniards who grouch about globalization or formulaic Hollywood movies now lap up U.S. series.

There’s been no sudden U.S. fiction breakthrough, but more of a steady sea-change over the last two years. The revival reflects dramatic changes in Spain’s broadcasting landscape as well as evolving viewing habits and audience tastes. Some recent U.S. series highlights:

  • Running Tuesdays from February through June on primetime, “House” has been huge for startup broadcaster Cuatro, averaging 12.3%, doubling the channel share and becoming an appointment show for young, educated Spaniards.

  • On Telecinco, Spain’s dominant broadcaster, three “CSI” reruns made August’s top 10, rating sixth (a 31% share), eighth (30%) and 10th (28%).

  • Another frosh bow on Cuatro, “Grey’s Anatomy” has begun to break out in Spain, averaging 12.5% in August, compared with Cuatro’s 6.5% par for the month.

  • On Antena 3, the second-highest-rating web, rerun “The 4400″ blasted all primetime competish Aug. 29 with 2.8 million and a 23.6% share. Result bodes well for sci-fier’s upcoming second-season bow.

  • Aired by Valencia regional web Canal 9, “Invasion” beat all rivals Aug. 27, notching a 21.4% share for double episodes.

Other than “House’s” numbers, these are summer ratings. Only “CSI” has proved an absolute full-season top performer in primetime, averaging between 23.7% and 25% for Telecinco in the 2005-06 season.

In 2006, far more U.S. series have rolled out or will roll out in Spanish primetime than at any time in the last 20 years. Between them, Cuatro and La Sexta aired 10 primetime U.S. skeins in May, at the height of last season. Going forward, pubcaster RTVE just started airing “Lost’s” second season.

Sexta’s main fall fiction bets are “Prison Break” and “Bones.” “We’d like American series to be one of our hallmarks,” says La Sexta acquisitions head Sergio Ramos.

Cuatro will air new episodes of “House,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and HBO’s “Rome.”

Contrast that with just a few years ago, when Spanish broadcasters were desperately trying to cut U.S. skeins out of studio output deals.

Why the turnaround?

The simplest explanation is that two additional terrestrial broadcasters have launched in Spain: Sogecable’s Cuatro and La Sexta, teaming Spanish production house Imagina and Televisa.

Niche pitch

Both target Spain’s underserved young urban middle-class. “Spain had a unique TV model: four general entertainment channels aiming at maximum audiences. Youth auds had been abandoned,” says La Sexta CEO Jose Miguel Contreras.

Both launched as niche channels, which means lower budgets. Before sharing World Cup soccer rights, Cuatro’s 2006 budget ran at $205 million-$231 million, per analysts.

But it also lowers the bar on acquirable product. “(In the past,) 12%-14% shares used to be a disaster. Now for some broadcasters it’s an absolute hit,” says Eduardo Garcia Matilla, prexy of research company Corp. Multimedia.

Spain’s mainstream broadcast leaders are also eying U.S. shows.

“Series tie audiences down, create brands. If you pick up a franchise series, you have a years’-long brand,” says Antena 3 head of acquisitions and sales Mercedes Gamero.

Telecinco head of acquisitions Ghislain Barrois cites the case of “Criminal Minds.” Telecinco skedded it in its traditional Friday movie slot. Though the series cost a fraction of movies, it equaled or bettered their ratings.

Audience fragmentation and young-demo erosion also may benefit U.S. skeins; plus, there are early signs of viewer fatigue with domestic series.

Dropoff

Spain’s top-rating series are determindly priapic.

Spain’s top-rating series, “Aqui no hay quien viva” — in which a seventysomething separated woman has a night of drunken passion with her butch young neighbor — averaged 6.3 million viewers during 2004-05 but only 5.6 million over 2005-06.

Not that U.S. series can, as yet, match those figures. Cuatro and La Sexta are airing a colossal number of series, but only a few have really taken off.

And Spain’s fast-moving TV market may soon move on. Spain’s appetite for U.S. series does not appear to have reached saturation, but it faces a run on supply.

Per La Sexta’s Contreras, the logical next step will see broadcasters looking further afield to Europe. Antena 3 already airs Germany’s “Medicopter 117″ on Sunday evenings. Cuatro has Belgium’s “Matrioshki” in Thursday latenight. La Sexta has several British series in the hopper.

Another trend, says Barrois, will be “many more local adaptations of successful shows, not only reality but fiction shows.” Grabbing a 22%-25% share, Telecinco’s local version of “Betty la fea” bested the original series on Antena 3.

“We’ll see more of that, especially for comedies, which travel badly and have to be reversioned,” Barrois predicts. “There are some great concepts out there.”

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