Int’l TV banks on yanks

Despite strong enmity o'seas toward the U.S., American TV dramas are booming

U.S. SHOWS OCCUPY TOP-SHELF SPACE IN:
United Kingdom
Germany
France
Italy
Spain

Despite last week’s election results and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation, distrust of America remains high in Europe and other parts of the world. So it’s all the more ironic that those same countries can’t get enough of U.S. TV shows, particularly one-hour dramas.

In Britain, which once touted its own shows as the best in the world, Yank series “CSI,” “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives,” “House” and newcomer “Ugly Betty” are drawing record prices. The same is true in nearby countries, where audiences are flocking to shows like “24” and “Without a Trace.”

Rarely has there been such a disconnect between the resentment of foreigners toward our politics and their delight in our pop culture. From the Euro perspective, values such as free speech and equal opportunity seem to have been trampled on Stateside, while less appealing traits — overt money-grubbing and narrow-minded religiosity, or a swaggering us-vs.-them mentality — have turned many foreigners off.

The contrast is all the more apparent in the way that Britain’s Five, seeking to pump up its ratings and burnish its profile, promotes its program schedule: “Nothing Good Ever Came Out of America — Until Now.”

In Western Europe, the hottest foreign market for U.S. shows, enthusiasm has not been as fervent since the mid-1980s when “Miami Vice,” “MacGyver” and “Magnum P.I.” ruled the global airwaves, catapulting countless fledgling stations abroad toward commercial success.

The main differences between then and now: The writing on U.S. dramas is more compelling, the storylines more complex and the production values more cinematic. And serendipitously, a number of younger-skewing foreign stations — Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Italia, Cuatro in Spain and Flextech in Britain — have realized that Yank shows can add cachet to their skeds.

As a result, the money Hollywood studios are raking in from foreign deals is much greater than it was 20 years ago.

Though the Motion Picture Assn. jealously guards official figures, Variety estimates that the six Hollywood majors will take in a stunning $7 billion all told this year from their international TV deals for series and movies. That makes it an ancillary market to be reckoned with, arguably on a par with domestic syndication and just $2 billion shy of domestic theatrical grosses.

The popularity of U.S. series abroad could not come at a better time, as studios struggle with rising production costs. The season’s crop of newcomers cost an average of $2.75 million an episode, and the foreign returns help fill a gap of $1 million-$1.2 million in the license fees studios collect from networks.

There are concerns that the boom won’t last, since so many of this fall’s newcomers (“Kidnapped,” “Smith,” “Studio 60,” “The Nine”) have faltered out of the gate, or may be too complicated to sustain the attention of foreign auds.

“Everyone (in the U.K.) with the exception of the BBC has acquired shows that have been dropped Stateside. The shows are just too complex, too high concept or too serialized to survive,” says Jay Kandola, head buyer for ITV. Her counterpart at Channel Four, Jeff Ford, cautioned that if prices for U.S. shows keep rising, his station will have to get out of the race.

These caveats aside, the international market as a whole is still on an up trajectory, and Five is not the only British station to step up big-time to acquire U.S. shows.

Murdoch’s satcaster BSkyB plopped down a stunning $1.85 million an episode several weeks ago to wrest exclusive British rights to Disney’s “Lost” — a deal which repped the biggest single payout for a Yank series ever.

That price is an aberration, but the average per-episode license fee in Britain for a U.S. series is $750,000 an hour — double what it was just a couple of years ago.

There are similarly lucrative deals being done in Canada, Australia and Eastern Europe.

Consider these snapshots:

  • In Germany, commercial powerhouse ProSiebenSat 1 recently agreed to a potential payout of $300 million for Warner Bros. movies and series over the next three years. Rival RTL continues to pay for the “CSI” franchise, which anchors three different nights in primetime.

  • France’s top broadcaster TF1 just paid a handsome price to corral Disney’s latest drama, “Ugly Betty.”

  • Savvy marketing mavens at Cuatro in Spain used the Fox drama “House” to promote their entire channel, running commercials with star Hugh Laurie, his voice dubbed into Spanish, commenting sardonically on the station’s other shows.

  • In Italy, Murdoch’s Sky Italia is forking out for a number of U.S. series (“CSI” and “Lost” among them) for a first window. The government plans to sell off one of Silvio Berlusconi’s commercial networks and one of the pubcaster’s RAI’s channels could eventually introduce more competition into that market.

Overall, top-of-the-line U.S. series are pulling in between $1.5 million and $2 million an episode from foreign stations.

“There is an A-list of series which is bringing in huge bucks but I have to say all the ships have risen as a result of this newfound interest in U.S. shows,” says Laurie Younger, Disney’s top domestic and international TV distribution exec.

In addition to “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives,” she cites “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Criminal Minds” and “Ghost Whisperer” as well as reality juggernaut “The Amazing Race” as some of her company’s other buoyant properties.

Every territory also has an oddball hit or two: “The Bold and the Beautiful” is still the top-performing Yank show in Italy, while hoary series “Quincy” and “Columbo” are still beloved mainstays in Eastern Europe.

Aside from the A-list network series, a number of cable shows — USA’s “Monk,” TNT’s “Nightmares and Dreamscapes,” and Sci Fi’s “Eureka” — are garnering fans in various territories abroad.

The boom extends to Russia and Poland, which are now spending more than all of Latin America to acquire American shows. Even Japan, which is notoriously resistant to Yank series, has warmed to “Lost” via sales of the first two seasons on DVD, and now a TV deal is pending.

“A lot of things have combined to create this positive environment,” suggests Warner Bros. Intl. TV prexy Jeffrey Schlesinger. “The production values of U.S. dramas are particularly high right now, competition among broadcasters abroad is relatively strong and their ad markets are healthy — and remember, not all their own local programming efforts are successes.”

Foreign broadcasters, especially Europeans, relish being able to fill a few empty slots with shows that break the mold.

Every year or two there are one or more such newcomers from the States. In the early ’90s it was the fast-paced, densely plotted “ER,” the irreverent “Simpsons” and the quirky “X-Files” that took “international” by storm. But at the turn of the millennium, Yank shows lost favor, the entire German market tanked, and the buzz was all about reality formats — those coming into the U.S. rather than out.

Then, seven years ago, the “CSI” franchise broke new ground, and there was renewed focus by foreign broadcasters on what’s being developed Stateside, lest one miss out on a hot-ticket item.

One or another of the “CSI” installments now holds down the fort on three separate nights on France’s leading network TF1, as well as on similarly strong stations in the U.K., Germany, Spain, Italy and Australia.

Although it is hard to ferret out the precise price per episode, analysts say that the forensics franchise could pull in almost $1 billion if each of the three “CSI” series runs for 10 years. That is in large part due to an alternative approach that distributor Alliance Atlantis took in selling the foreign rights: Instead of seeking two-year rights deals, it sold the entire life of each of the “CSI” series, locking in a fixed price for the shows’ runs.

“Why does ‘CSI’ work? It’s a classic problem-solving whodunit — it transcends cultures. On a week-to-week basis, you get a beginning, middle and an end,” says Ted Riley, the top distribution exec at Alliance Atlantis.

This fall’s two major successes, Disney’s “Ugly Betty” and NBC U’s “Heroes,” are bringing something different to the table, and are starting to rake in dough abroad.

“European audiences are more open to experimenting with storytelling and dramatic exposition. And they are responsive when they see something produced by us that has production values greater than what can be made locally,” says Schlesinger.

While Warner Bros. has consistently fielded a solid stable of shows abroad for the past dozen years, this fall several Hollywood studios have something to crow about.

Fox is bent on turning its sophomore hit “Prison Break” into the kind of overseas phenom “24” and “House” have become and also believes its courtroom drama “Shark,” built around the James Woods character, could catch on overseas. CBS Par is banking on “Jericho,” while still making sizable sums on “NCIS.”

Disney, however, boasts the hottest hand, with its trio of “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Grey’s Anatomy” all established hits overseas, in many cases in primetime berths on key broadcasters.

“One reason the prices are so healthy is that there are more and more buyers willing to step up, cable buyers as well as over-the-air stations,” says Disney’s Younger. “They’re nervous they might miss the boat.”

Nonetheless, studios remember the gloating that accompanied the expansion of the foreign market in the mid- to late-’90s, which came back to haunt Hollywood when the bubble burst. The demise of Germany’s Kirch Group alone cost the U.S. majors more than $1 billion in lost revenues.

“I tell my bosses: Don’t get used to it, because it will turn,” Younger says.

In fact, there are tell-tale signs that things won’t last at quite these lofty levels.

“Lost” and “Housewives” have lost their sizzle in Italy and Spain, and recent imports like “Entourage” and “The 4400” have flopped. Instead of buying rights to U.S. shows, a growing trend is to simply localize formats, as France’s TF1 is doing with “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.”

“It’s all cyclical,” says Schlesinger. “The good news is that while some markets may level off, there are others that are experiencing greater competition or significant growth in ad spend. New players, with new needs for product, are always coming onstream.”

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