U.S. series fail to excite visitors

After a slimmed-down L.A. Screenings this year, British program buyers are predicting a quiet summer for dealmaking — and a possible shift in buying patterns, which could hit studios in the pockets.

Buyers returned to Blighty empty-handed this week, having seen just a handful of completed pilots during the trip to L.A. And while a number of shows proved buzzworthy, most notably “The Mentalist” and “Fringe” from Warner Bros., the lack of new product and the move toward year-round commissioning means the frenzied buying of recent years looks set to become a thing of the past.

“We knew that the writers strike had happened, but it was still a bit of a shock,” noted ITV’s director of acquisitions Jay Kandola, who predicts the lack of sales activity will have a significant impact on studio revenues.

“In this territory, they have been relying on getting a lot of money within six weeks of the screenings, and that has gone straight back into production to afford what are now very expensive network pilots. Not getting the international cash may hurt them.”

In recent years, Blighty has been a big buyer of U.S. series, with prices skyrocketing after the success of “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost” and “CSI.” But with many webs already saddled with expensive renewals, it was always likely that this year would see buyers reining in their spending.

“In 2006, by mid-July, something like 30 out of 34 shows we saw at the screenings had been sold,” noted David Smyth, head of acquisitions for Sky One. “By last July, I think it was half that. A lot of the heat had come out of the market already by 2007.”

Like his fellow Brits, Smyth has yet to break out the checkbook this year and is predicting that buying will move to more of a year-round process, reflecting the changes at the U.S. networks.

For buyers, that will mean keeping a closer eye on the U.S. throughout the year, although for many this is already the norm, thanks to the growing quality of cable shows.

“There are real gems cropping up at every point in the year,” noted Amy Barham, head of acquisitions at Virgin Media. “It’s not just that you have this one point in the year anymore. It doesn’t feel like you have to make your move a week after May 17.”

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