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Networks scurry as strike looms

ABC, NBC look abroad for viewer insurance

The broadcast nets are looking abroad for strike insurance.

NBC and ABC have had conversations with international producers and broadcasters about using finished episodes of their existing series as replacement programming should a WGA strike occur, execs at both nets confirmed.

There’s also increasing talk of broadcasters acquiring cable hits as strike contingencies, with sibling cable nets serving as logical suppliers (think USA Network for NBC). In recent weeks, Warner Bros. TV — which produces “The Closer” — has approached broadcast nets about acquiring episodes of the hit procedural.

But the international option is the most intriguing as nets’ strike contingency plans kick into overdrive.

American series are regularly broadcast on major nets in the U.K. and dozens of countries around the globe. And Blighty skeins such as “Footballers’ Wives” and “MI5” have generated buzz on American cablers such as BBC America and A&E.

U.S. broadcast nets, however, have generally avoided airing imports, in part because they fear viewers won’t tune in shows with non-American accents. Such concerns could go out the window, however, if nets get desperate.

NBC Entertainment co-chair Ben Silverman stressed that he hasn’t purchased anything yet.

“I’ve been communicating with people and looking all over the world for ideas,” Silverman said. “There are no deals with anyone, but we’re constantly looking to tap into relationships.”

Silverman made it clear that buying already produced shows from other countries is a last resort. “Right now, we’re just hoping there’s not a strike,” he said.

ABC Entertainment prexy Steve McPherson also confirmed that he’s talked to several international producers about importing shows to the U.S. But, as at NBC, he said no deals have been closed.

A CBS rep declined comment on the Eye’s strike plans. However, people familiar with the situation said Eye execs have had meetings about acquiring international projects or partnering with non-American producers on joint productions.

Blighty is a logical supplier of programming to America, particularly thanks to the recent trends in Brit production.

“The tone of British television is becoming more American,” said Chris Coelen, chief exec of RDF USA. “There’s been a push to capture the sensibilities of American TV. It’s made the two markets come together even more.”

Coelen’s company produces “Meadowlands,” a U.S.-U.K co-production sold in the U.S. as a Showtime original and in Blighty as a British production.

While the U.K. would be an obvious choice for programming, other countries could serve as pipelines as well, including Australia and Canada. Latter country’s programming is particularly appealing given the subtle nature of Canadian accents.

(U.S. broadcasters may be too worried about accents. “The biggest star on American television is Simon Cowell,” Coelen said. “And accents haven’t hurt the James Bond movies.”)

Canada’s airwaves are also chock-full of programs that have received little play in the U.S. (save in border cities like Seattle and Detroit) or have wound up only on small cable channels.

The CBC, for example, garnered worldwide attention for its comedy “Little Mosque on the Prairie,” while CTV’s laffer “Corner Gas” just earned a bevy of nominations for the Gemini Awards, Canada’s version of the Emmys. Dramas like CBC’s “Intelligence” and “Jozi-H,” or CTV’s “Whistler,” could also make their way down.

There’s precedent for the NAFTA-style Canadian march into the U.S.: Noggin’s teen-centric the N has seen solid ratings growth based on sudsy Canadian entries like “Degrassi: The Next Generation.”

Several of TV’s most famous thesps — such as Michael J. Fox –hail from Canada. In the 1980s, “SCTV” was based in Toronto. And most of the lifestyle nets, like HGTV and Food Network, already air a huge amount of home-improvement and home-centric shows shot in Canada (with locales kept nondescript enough that only the occasional “oot” and “aboot” gives it away).

And this summer, ABC’s one bright ratings spot came from “Just for Laughs,” a hidden camera show that became the first-ever Canada-based show to score a primetime timeslot on a major U.S. net.

ABC recently picked up 13 more segs of “Just for Laughs,” which could easily be held for strike contingency (Daily Variety, Aug. 28). But with the barrier finally broken, more Great White North programming would easily survive the translation.

Nets’ willingness to consider international programs could be a sign that broadcasters are worried that simply throwing on reality and gameshows won’t be enough to keep viewers tuned in during a strike. Poor performance by so many reality skeins (on both broadcast and cable nets) has demonstrated that viewers can stomach only so much nonscripted fare at a time.

If the nets do decide to start going after global hits, NBC’s Silverman could have an advantage given his broad experience in the global marketplace. “It’s a world where relationships still matter a lot,” he said.

Meanwhile, for the broadcast webs, another source of strike-proof programming is right under the same umbrella. The last time labor strife threatened the networks, basic cable was still just producing a handful of original series — and very few of those were scripted.

This time around, cable is coming off a highly rated summer — and quite frankly, the networks could use some of that sheen anyway.

Every network has a sister cabler from which they could pilfer (and in some cases, already do): ABC Family could loan out “Kyle XY” and “Greek,” as it already has on occasion, to ABC. The Alphabet web could also come knocking on Disney Channel’s door and borrow laffers like “Hannah Montana” — and perhaps, if it asks real nicely, a run or two of “High School Musical.”

In the Alphabet’s case, ESPN could also kick in a sports show or two.

Over at NBC, Bravo (“Project Runway”), USA (“Burn Notice”) and Sci Fi Channel (“Battlestar Galactica”) could also send familiar fare to its big sister.

CBS, meanwhile, could potentially make deals with the producers of Showtime skeins like “Weeds” to acquire edited-down versions. And Fox might possibly do the same with FX shows such as “Damages.”

As an indie player, Warners would be in a good position to sell shows such as “The Closer.” People familiar with the situation said the studio has been selling the skein to nets as potential summer programming, but it’s not hard to see a net countering with an offer to use the show in case of a strike.

Every net also has a news division or sister news cabler that could produce hourlong specials or newsmags — which are already acting like scripted procedurals these days anyway (see “Primetime: Crime” or “48 Hours Mystery”).

And then there’s always consumer-driven video. The CW has created a whole show — “Online Nation” — out of YouTube user-generated fare. If a strike progresses, at least those amateur online thesps are (a) free and (b) non-union.

(Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.)

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