Strike begins to plague Europe

Shortfall of hit TV shows worry execs

Storm clouds from the Writers Guild of America strike are finally spreading to Euro TV.

Europe’s been buffered from fallout from the work stoppage so far because Yank series normally air six to 12 months after their U.S. bows. Plus ratings at established free-to-air webs are still largely driven by homegrown fiction and sports

But at webs that are dependent on U.S. drama, honchos are concerned about the growing likelihood that many star skeins, “CSI” and “House” included, won’t deliver full seasons in 2008.

Most U.S. shows have shot just 10-14 episodes of their new seasons. “Lost” has eight segs, “CSI” franchises have 11-14 episodes, while “House” has 14. That’s way down on the full 22-24 seg seasons.

Some overseas execs have started to take action by reworking skeds and drawing up contingency programming plans to lessen the blow of a shortfall of U.S. dramas; Others have begun to eye or buy stop-gap product from outside the U.S.

The U.K’s Channel 4 has dropped season four of “Desperate Housewives” from its January line-up while transmission of the second half of season two of “Ugly Betty” is affected by the stoppage.

Also hit are new acquisitions “Reaper,” “The Big Bang Theory” and the next season of “Brothers & Sisters.”

Rival web Five, owned by pan-European media giant RTL, which owns U.K. rights to the “CSI” franchise, is highly dependent on U.S. fare.

Channel 4’s head of acquisitions Jeff Ford says three of Channel 4’s webs face disruption to their schedules as a result of the strike — digital webs E4 and More4, and the main channel.

“The strike is a disaster for America first, a disaster for the international TV business second — and thirdly it will force us to change our strategy going forward,” he says.

With at the very least, a short-term dearth of U.S. drama and comedies Ford says the broadcaster is looking at acquiring shows from other sources — including the U.S. — and commissioning more domestic fare especially factual formats from U.K. indies.

“We might have to reconsider some of the shows that we passed on earlier,” he says. “But if in the future we commission a local show that becomes a big hit that is another reason not to go to Hollywood.

“We won’t play U.S. game shows in primetime and we won’t be repeating the first season of ‘Desperate Housewives.’

“It will be especially tough for E4 (the youth-skewed web that plays a lot of acquisitions), but we will change our buying and commissioning strategy to fill gaps in the schedule.

Blighty’s biggest commercial web ITV, which has envied the success of shows like “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” on rival channels, was planning to schedule Warners’ “Pushing Daisies” on flagship channel ITV1.

This would have been the first time a U.S. show has played in primetime on ITV1 in many years, but the plan is being reconsidered because it doesn’t have a full series.

In Spain, second highest-rated broadcaster Antena 3 planned a January primetime triple whammy bow of “Dirty, Sexy Money,” “Private Practice” and “Without a Trace.”

“We’ve only got eight episodes of each. Instead of airing the series different nights, we’ll back-to-back two and postpone their bow till February,” says Antena 3 topper Mikel Lejarza.

The problem is more acute among feevees.

In Germany, paybox Premiere has had to postpone the seventh season of “24.” In Italy, “CSI,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” and “Dexter” are among mainstays of the Rupert Murdoch-owned satcaster Sky Italia.

“Sky Italia airs U.S. shows with probably the shortest time gap in Europe following their Stateside playdates,” says Fabrizio Salini, VP & head of entertainment programming and content, Fox Intl. Channels, Italy.

The paybox is drawing up contingency programming plans for next spring.

One plan shifting local dramas — like recently launched soap spoof “Boris,” and three Italo skeins in the works — to higher-profile slots, as well giving other Euro product more visibility.

Still not all are worried.

“We’ve had product crunches before, when shows flop. We’re equipped to deal with them,” says Francesco Mozzetti, acquisitions topper at Italo broadcast group Mediaset, which is likely to air more movies.

“We’re running a full season behind the U.S. so it hasn’t hurt us yet,” says Claus Richter a spokesman for Germany’s RTL.

Most webs claim they have inventory to compensate shortfalls.

“Like all U.K. broadcasters who show U.S. programming we are concerned that there is the potential for a diminished episode count of certain series next year,” says a spokesman for the U.K.’s Five. “However, we are confident that Five has a strong broad-based slate of acquired and commissioned shows to compensate for any possible shortfall.”

But the strike’s potential Euro TV fallout goes beyond reskedding.

On single-season deals, broadcasters pay per episode. The U.S. studios will lose million of dollars in Europe if they don’t deliver full seasons.

There are other ramifications.

Over the past decade, Europe’s seen vigorous deregulation: launches of digital pay TV channels, now digital terrestrial feeds.

Startup webs tend to move from imported U.S. fare to higher-end domestic production.

Germany’s Vox, for instance, is abandoning youth-skewed, often U.S. fare for more homegrown reality TV.

And if the strike continues, Euro producers are poised to grab market share.

“The strike reminds me of the oil crisis in 1973, when the world realized it couldn’t go on depending on a single supplier,” says a Spanish pay TV honcho.

U.S. shows have more primetime berths than at any time since the heydays of “Dallas” and “Dynasty.”

It would be a galling — and expensive — irony if the WGA stoppage broke this mojo.

Nick Vivarelli in Rome and Erik Kirschbaum in Berlin contributed to this report.

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