Buyers bullish on new, exciting network fare

Stateside pilots could be flying high at the April 4-7 Mip TV gathering in Cannes, as TV advertising revenues are on the upswing worldwide and there are signs that the economic gloom of the last two years is fading — admittedly, more quickly in some territories than in others.

European TV buyers who have studied some of the pilots are bullish: “The range of pilots on offer clearly demonstrates that there’s money again in the marketplace,” says Ghislain Barrois of Spain’s Tele 5. “The networks are investing again.”

While most Euro buyers admit they won’t make many decisions until the May 18-28 L.A. Screenings, Mip TV is where the U.S. networks lay the groundwork for the global buzz as buyers scrutinize offering to fill out skeds on their growing number of channels.

Most buyers contacted by Variety say they are seeing projects that are ambitious and creatively adventurous — especially after this current season’s slate was criticized last year for being relatively bland.

Fabrizio Salini, head of programing for Fox Channels, Italy, says, “We have noticed that every year the quality level as a whole of American product gets better, regardless how the shows end up doing.”

Still, Salini says buyers know that success doesn’t just depend on how good a show is. And many overseas broadcasters are tied to output deals.

So what are the international buyers in the mood for?

The proliferation of supernatural concepts and promising period pieces, like “Pan Am,” set in the 1960s when airline travel was glamorous, not laborious, and familiar titles, like “Charlie’s Angels” (“It has a sexy kick-ass cast and an immediately known brand,” says one buyer), come equipped with concepts that are easy to market.

“There are four or five on the list that I’m impressed by,” says one overseas exec, who cites “Pan Am” and its accuracy of period detail. The exec says it’s a sort of “Mad Men” of the aviation world: “It looks like a must-have prestige product.”

Sarah Wright, controller of acquisitions and entertainment at BSkyB, says smart, high-concept dramas are in development at all the networks. She says she’s tracking projects that include Fox’s “Alcatraz,” from J.J. Abrams; “Exit Strategy,” starring Ethan Hawke, with action vets such as Antoine Fuqua, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman pushing the buttons; and “Touch,” with its supernatural elements, and adds that “Homeland” (Showtime) and “REM” (NBC) “sound great.”

She also notes the trend of fairy-tale/fantasy theme in “Grimm” (NBC) and “Once Upon a Time” (ABC).

The exec is also measuring the traction for remakes: “With ‘Hawaii Five-0′ doing so well for us on Sky1, we’ll be keen to see if (that) territory is still fertile ground in ‘Charlie’s Angels’ (ABC), ‘Dallas’ (TNT) and ‘Wonder Woman’ (NBC).”

Ruediger Boess of Germany’s free-to-air ProSiebenSat.1 also notes the large number of serials — high-concept series — with continuing story arcs. He adds that shows with a strong serialized character and storyline have a difficult time with free TV audiences in Germany. “They tend to work better on pay TV or on DVD,” he says.

Nevertheless, Boess says some of the more interesting titles include Abrams’ “Person of Interest” and “Alcatraz,” the CW’s zombie skein “Awakening,” CBS’ “The Assistants” (“which could be like ‘Entourage’ but better suited for the German market”) and Fox’s Kiefer Sutherland starrer “Touch,” about the father of an autistic child who can predict the future.

Also on Boess’ watch list is ABC’s reboot of “Charlie’s Angels” as well as the network’s Shonda Rhimes project “Damage Control” and the dance-themed “Grace.”

Boess says fantasy and sci-fi shows continue to do well on German TV thanks to the genre’s loyal fan base. Pro- Sieben offers a successful fantasy/sci-fi lineup on Mondays with “Fringe,” “Vampire Diaries” and “Supernatural.”

Katie Keenan, head of acquisitions at the U.K.’s Channel 5, reminds that studios want to create a buzz around pilots at Mip TV. “It’s the start of them generating the hype around the shows that we’ll end up seeing at the (L.A.) Screenings,” Keenan says.

She says “Missing,” with its international setting and Ashley Judd attached, sounds “epic” — the show, which centers around a mother who’s an ex-CIA agent searching for her missing son, has been picked up by ABC for a summer slot.

Keenan also likes the logline for “Locke and Key,” which involves a spooky house, and is backed by Steven Spielberg, among other exec producers. Also onboard the show, which is based on a graphic novel, are writer Josh Friedman and director Mark Romanek.

Brand names like Abrams and Marc Cherry, the latter with the supernatural-themed “Hallelujah,” have piqued international buyers’ interest, including Guido Pugnetti of Italo pubcaster RAI, whose RAI-2 is the key broadcast channel for U.S. series in Italy.

“We are very curious to see if Cherry’s new series will get picked up and what it will be,” says Pugnetti. “There are plenty of new supernatural shows this year; we have to (see) if this will saturate the market or not.”

Pugnetti says Italo auds identify RAI-2 with high-level crime fare (“Criminal Minds,” “NCIS”); supernatural shows (“Ghost Whisperer”) and, to a lesser degree, skeins such as “Desperate Housewives.”

“What really works are classic genre products with a touch of innovation,” he notes, a taste echoed by many foreign buyers.

Spain is a steady consumer of U.S. product, with shows like “CSI,” “House” (called “Dr. House” in many foreign territories) and more recently, “Castle,” all performing well.

Barrois says Spain has seen a dramatic shift in audience tastes in relation to English-language drama over the last 12 months: “There’s now an appetite for other types of fiction,” he says, pointing to recent imported hits “The Tudors,” which aired on pubcaster TVE; “The Walking Dead,” on free-to-air La Sexta in primetime; and “Downton Abbey,” on Antena 3. None would have made the cut a few years ago.

But like all buyers, Barrois realizes that things that looks good on paper can easily misfire.

“Even while waiting for the networks to choose 20 or so shows from the 80-plus list of pilots, it’s difficult to know which will actually work for the Spanish market,” Barrois says. “We now have to take a serious look at shows coming out of the gate that a year ago we wouldn’t have been caught dead with.”

New digital terrestrial channels and satcasters also have changed the international TV landscape. In Italy, Mediaset and Sky Italia are duking it out, and the competition will “certainly not lower prices,” Pugnetti says, adding that Italy has a big appetite for U.S. series now.

But many buyers’ strategies revolve around next month’s L.A. Screenings.

“Our first step is the Screenings, where we start to evaluate what might work for us. But we don’t just wait to see the shows, we try to anticipate,” says Fabrizio Salini, head of programing for Fox Channels, Italy.

He points to AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” “which we followed from its inception, and that gave us an advantage; it’s been one of our top shows lately.”

Fox bowed “Walking Dead” and “Glee” on Sky Italia almost day-and-date with their U.S. premieres. It aired “Body of Proof” in January, nearly three months before its Stateside bow.

“There is so much anticipation in the international marketplace that we are willing to run the risk” of airing a U.S. show in Italy even before American auds generate buzz, Salini says.

“Pay TV channels like ours have to be the first ones to experiment, to (air) new product that would not necessarily go out on (free to air) channels.”

For Salini, the buzz pilots are sci-fier “Terra Nova” and “Napoleon Dynamite,” not surprisingly both from Fox. Salini cites Fox’s success in animation, with series like “Family Guy” and “American Dad,” in his excitement over the toon “Dynamite.”

In France, where the most popular U.S. shows are “The Mentalist,” “CSI: Miami” and “House,” crime — and sleuthing — pays.

Gallic commercial net M6 airs the most American TV dramas in France; it bowed its latest acquisition, “Glee,” in an 11 p.m. timeslot last week.

Aline Marrache-Tesseraud, Canal Plus’ head of foreign drama acquisition, says she doesn’t like to judge pilots sight unseen, but production volume seems to be on the rise for each studio. “In terms of ambition,” she says, “from what we see, there’s no creative renewal. The networks seem to be playing it safe with lots of cop shows and procedurals.”

The Canal Plus exec says she has noted a boom in TV series production in many parts of the world, but allows that “U.S. shows are still ahead of the curve in terms of quality.”

In many parts of the world, some buyers can be forgiven for trying to find their way back to the island. “Aside from tentpole series, like ‘CSI,’ we are still missing something new to replace ‘Lost,’?” says one buyer. “It was supposed to be ‘Flash Forward,’ but we haven’t had anything that (approaches “Lost”) in terms of communication and viewership.”

Although Mip TV will have its share of tire-kickers, many buyers say they will wait for the L.A. Screenings to pull the trigger on series.

“Talking about pilots at this stage is fun; but from a business standpoint pointless,” says one Italian exec. “Mip TV is important in terms of building rapport and especially for European companies. … (But) many of the key American companies, essentially the majors, that we buy product from aren’t even going to Mip TV, given the proximity with L.A. Screenings.”

Still, international buyers relish the promise of the pilots and look forward to discovery.

“There’s always the anticipation of the sleeper show that none of us spots in the loglines, and that we all want after the Screenings,” Keenan says.

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