Big Four cutting costs with co-productions

Nearly 15 years ago, a then-unknown Paul Haggis created “Due South,” a quirky hourlong comedy that was also unusual for what it was not: a U.S. production.

CBS aired “Due South” for two seasons, making the Canadian import one of the few international productions to make it onto the U.S. primetime broadcast sked. That list is meager: 1960s spy fave “The Avengers,” and more recently, the U.K.’s Japanese TV spoof “Banzai” — and well, that’s been about it.

Until now. The broadcast networks once again are learning what the feature world and cablers like HBO and Showtime already know: International projects shouldn’t be dismissed just because they’re from foreign shores.

NBC plans to import the BBC drama “Merlin,” and has the U.K. skein “Crusoe” and the Canadian drama “The Listener” in the works — all for next season. CTV is behind “Listener,” and is also sharing the crime drama “Flashpoint” with CBS, with the Eye airing it this summer. ABC, meanwhile, just wrapped the first season of hidden camera skein “Just for Laughs,” which also hails from the Great White North.

“Between the Internet and certainly movies, people are pretty comfortable with international casts and international settings,” says CBS Entertainment prexy Nina Tassler. “We’re looking more toward this in the future.”

The writers strike provided some of the impetus for nets looking overseas and up north for already produced fare, but an even greater motivator has been economics. International co-productions help control costs, while full-fledged international acquisitions generally come with much lower license fees.

“You’re reducing your deficit by having a partner; it’s as simple as that,” says CBS Paramount Network TV prexy David Stapf, whose studio is co-producing “Flashpoint.”Not surprisingly, NBC — under the direction of globetrotting programming chief Ben Silverman –has been the most aggressive about snatching up shows from other countries.

As the former head of Reveille, Silverman helped bring international formats such as “The Office” and “Ugly Betty” to the States. Now that he’s running a network, Silverman is taking things a step further by bringing over entire shows.

“Merlin,” for example, is a family adventure greenlit by the BBC more than a year ago. It wasn’t until November that NBC decided to get involved — well after the scripts for the first season had been written.

Peacock development chief Teri Weinberg says the decision to air “Merlin” was primarily based on the quality of the project.

“We loved the idea, and it fell in line with the type of family programming we’re trying to do,” she says.

But, Weinberg concedes, “It was also deal driven.”

Translation: NBC is getting a big-budget drama at a fraction of the cost it would have to pay for a typical first-year hour. The Peacock won’t say exactly what the pricetag for “Merlin” is, but it’s likely about half what a traditional hour would go for.

NBC’s global programming passport contains two other stamps.

Also from the U.K.: “Crusoe,” an adaptation of the classic desert island tale being produced for NBC by Blighty-based Power. Skein sprang from Silverman’s head, with Power then brought in to produce for both NBC in exchange for a license fee.

And from Canada, the net is teaming with CTV for “The Listener,” a drama about psychic paramedics. Canadian company Shaftesbury Films developed a pilot for the show (see page 19), with NBC coming on board as a partner when the project moved forward to series.

Each show carries a different pricetag — and a different level of NBC creative involvement.

Weinberg says that “Crusoe,” for example, “is a true creative partnership” between the Peacock and Power. With “Listener,” a cast was already in place, but NBC has been able to suggest some changes to the roster.

“It all fits inside our portfolio approach to programming,” Weinberg says, explaining that NBC wants to produce all kinds of programs at all different price points.

“We wanted to find a way to put on as much original programming on as possible,” Weinberg says. That’s because repeats are no longer as viable as they once were, leaving holes in network skeds that need to be filled with something that can draw an audience.

Traditional scripted shows produced in the States carry a large pricetag, and as a result, nets can’t simply add more of them to fill space.

And while reality shows offer a partial solution, viewers can handle only so much unscripted fare on the broadcast webs. What’s more, successful reality shows have now become almost as expensive as scripted series, erasing the genre’s historic cost advantage.

The networks have traditionally shied away from international series; for several decades, that left the domain to PBS (where “Fawlty Towers” was a big hit) and syndication (“Benny Hill”). The traditional webs opted to remake overseas series instead — and in the 1970s, adaptations were everywhere, including “All in the Family” and “Three’s Company.”

Outside of primetime, the nets didn’t completely ignore non-U.S. fare: NBC aired Canadian import “SCTV” in latenight, while CBS’ pre-David Letterman “Crimetime After Primetime” block was chock full of series that were international co-productions.

But more recently, cable has helped expose more American auds to programming from the rest of the world. BBC America, of course, is nearly wall-to-wall U.K. series. Elsewhere, ABC Family aired Canadian entry “Falcon Beach,” while global kids shows (“Teletubbies,” “Charlie & Lola”) have also become popular imports in recent years.

This summer, Showtime will import Blighty hit “Secret Diary of a Call Girl,” having picked up the show well after the first season had been produced and aired in the U.K.

Meanwhile, back on the broadcast nets, reality TV adaptations revived the notion of scouting overseas for hot formats at the nets. The track record remained mixed (“Coupling” remains a prime example of how not to reinterpret an international hit) — until shows like “The Office” and “Ugly Betty” came along.

Not long after Silverman and Weinberg got to NBC last summer, “We started looking around the world to do as many deals as possible,” Weinberg says.

The threat of a strike also pushed NBC to act.

“We knew we had to find a way to stay in production,” Weinberg says. “We had to be prepared.”

In the case of “Flashpoint,” the project was originally developed as a pilot at CTV. Eye execs saw it, and realized that the concept — about a police unit handling crises — fit in the network’s bailiwick. That’s when sister shingle CBS Paramount Network TV signed on.

CBS had to make some slight adjustments to “Flashpoint,” which takes place in a nondescript North American city.

” ‘Flashpoint’ could take place anywhere,” Stapf says. “What’s important is the story you’re telling.”

While NBC will pay less for its international shows, Weinberg insists production quality won’t suffer. That’s because, with other broadcasters pitching in, there’s plenty of coin being put on the screen.

“They’re going to have the same look and feel as our other shows,” she says. “These are $30 million and $40 million productions. It’s not like we’re doing them on the dime.”

One of the chief reasons nets have avoided acquiring shows directly from other countries has been the fear that audiences would be put off by foreign accents. “I don’t know why there’s been this fear of it,” Weinberg says. “I’m not afraid of it.”

Indeed, Weinberg fought to include Ashley Jensen in the cast of Reveille’s “Ugly Betty,” despite her thick Scottish accent.

That said, Weinberg admits it’s important for viewers to hear some familiar voices in shows. She says the cast of “The Listener” will talk as if they’re from Chicago, while “Merlin” will contain a mix of Brit and American voices.

Weinberg thinks American nets can benefit from opening up their development to outside voices.

“There are some great producers worldwide who’ve probably been ignored,” she says.

In the case of importing shows, Tassl
er adds, it’s also “a matter of balance, finding what works economically for us and for them.”

Weinberg predicts international co-productions and direct acquisitions will become more common at all the nets.

“This is going to be how we do business,” she says.

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