Resurgent America

Popular upscale Yank skeins are defining global nets

LONDON — As digital channels proliferate, the demand for brand-defining shows continues to grow. Big content producers such as Disney, Warner Bros. and CBS Paramount are well aware that U.S. fare adds a touch of class to worldwide schedules and continues to be strong.

“CSI: Miami,” produced by CBS Paramount and Alliance Atlantic, is touted as the world’s most successful TV show.

“Shows that deliver 22 episodes and hit the right demographic — often a younger-age profile — with the right talent both behind and in front of the camera can help define a channel. This is why series like ‘Lost,’ ‘Desperate Housewives’ and ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ have been so successful globally,” says Tom Toumazis, exec VP and managing director, Buena Vista Intl. Television.

“This is a time when international audiences want to be challenged with more complex storylines, and audiences appreciate the high production values and star names our shows can provide.”

Big-name actors, Toumazis reckons, are increasingly willing to take roles in high-profile TV shows — and so increase the skein’s international appeal — because they value the continuity of working a long-running series that doesn’t involve being uprooted from Los Angeles or New York.

“Lost,” which Disney claims is the fastest-selling TV series ever, and “Desperate Housewives” have sold to more than 200 territories including the big European markets and beyond. Season one of “Lost,” for example, was the first U.S. series to air in Russian primetime in more than five years.

In the U.K., a bidding war between Channel 4 and Sky One for seasons three and four of “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” saw prices quadruple as networks paid in excess of $1 million an episode.

Despite solid ratings, prices, at some point, may become too high. Channel 4 acquisitions topper Jeff Ford said earlier this month that it doesn’t make economic sense to pay sky-high prices. He recently pulled out of a bidding war with satcaster BSkyB’s flagship channel Sky One for seasons three and four of “Lost,” which sold for a reputed £975,000 ($1.86 million) an episode.

Pay TV web Sky One, trailing in the ratings to main rival ITV2, is hoping that “Lost,” in which it has invested in excess of $75 million, will help keep Sky subscription levels healthy at a time when competition from soon-to-be rebranded cable combo NTL and new entrant BT Vision present new threats.

The irony is that at a time when anti-American feeling is arguably at an all-time high because of the Iraq conflict, and there’s widespread global condemnation of the George Bush administration, much of the world is hooked on U.S. TV shows.

“America is an inspirational place. They seem to do things bigger and better over there, and that’s reflected in their TV,” reckons Louise Benham, managing editor of LivingTV, one of the U.K.’s more successful digital webs.

For most weeks, nine out of the top 10 shows on Living are U.S.-based. The list is headed by reruns of “CSI,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “CSI: Miami” and reality skein “America’s Next Top Model.”

“We do great scripted shows here in the U.K., but they are not on the same scale as U.S. shows. No other country in the world has the talent pool that Hollywood can dip into,” adds Benham, who is understood to have been involved in the recent bidding frenzy for both “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives.”

Nick Thorogood, head of digital channels at Five, which recently launched spinoff station Five US, agrees that few nations can provide such consistently schedule-friendly, cost-effective fodder as the States.

“Occasionally you’ll get a show from Australia or New Zealand that can compete with some of the most successful American series,” he says. “‘Neighbours’ (which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary on BBC1) is one example. ‘Home and Away’ does great business for us and is helping to drive audiences to our new digital channel, Five Life.”

“There are some little gems around from outside the U.S.,” agrees Benham, who recently snapped up blue-collar drama “Outrageous Fortune,” produced by New Zealand’s South Pacific Pictures.

So can the boom in U.S. shows continue to power ahead, or is a slowdown in demand inevitable?

“The explosion in channels that has helped drive the boom can’t go on forever,” warns Benham. “In the U.K., I think we’ve reached critical mass in terms of the number of channels that can be sustained. This will control some of the spending, but there will always be bidding wars for the best shows.”

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