Fox takes tentpole strategy to TV

Consistent marketing boosts series release

Fox Intl. Channels is about to launch another worldwide zombie attack.

News Corp.’s international channels unit is pushing ahead with its efforts to target high-profile U.S. series for launch in a uniform pattern nearly day-and-date with the show’s domestic bow.

The effort worked like gangbusters for Fox Intl. Channels last fall with the bow of AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” and FIC is prepping the same game plan for the premiere of FX’s “American Horror Story” this week as well as for the soph-season bow of “Walking Dead” later this month.

FIC’s gamble on “Walking Dead” — premiering it across the vast expanse of entertainment channels it operates in 163 countries within a week of the show’s AMC debut — promises to forge a new international sales model for high-wattage shows with strong worldwide appeal.

Execs took their cue from the changing dynamics of international film distribution, especially for tentpole titles.

“We find the movies that perform the best (internationally) are the movies marketed in the most consistent way around the world,” says FIC prexy-CEO Hernan Lopez. “We asked ourselves if this theory applies to television, and we think it does.”

FIC is one of News Corp.’s fastest-growing divisions with nearly 250 channels spanning Europe, Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.

After a decade of launching channels at a furious pace under the leadership of David Haslingden, prexy and chief operating officer of Fox Networks Group, the division has seen its revenue skyrocket from about $100 million in 2002 to $1.8 billion in News Corp.’s fiscal year 2011 (which ended June 30). FIC is now tasked with meeting an ambitious target of hitting $1 billion in operating income by FY15; it delivered about half of that in FY11.

All of showbiz’s majors have invested in international channels. But Fox is a clear leader among Hollywood studios, with channels devoted to entertainment and factual (aka unscripted) as well as sports, news, kidvid and lifestyle fare.

News Corp. had Fox-branded international channels prior to 2002, but the big push started when Haslingden and his team saw that there was a land grab for channel space as cable and satellite platforms were sprouting up in key territories.

Fox has poured resources into establishing local infrastructure and exec teams in various countries — its staff roster has swelled to 2,500, many of them focused on local production. Lopez, who has been with Fox for 14 years, starting in his native Argentina, has yet to visit all 57 offices since he was upped to division prexy in February.

Most of FIC’s initial channel launches revolved around National Geographic, because the brand was so strong and the programming traveled so well. A few years ago, FIC brass realized they needed to do more with their entertainment channels.

“Instead of doing piecemeal deals market by market, we (decided to) dedicate a portion of our budget to buy rights on a global or multiterritory basis,” Lopez says. “We did it in order to control and predict the output for key series.”

FIC scooped up international TV and homevid rights to the AMC-produced series before a frame was shot last year. “Walking Dead” was a perfect fit because it had a saleable premise — zombies speak the universal language — and marquee names in producers Gale Anne Hurd and Frank Darabont. AMC also had no international distrib operation of its own.

FIC not only programs “Walking Dead” across its channel base (which in total reaches 915 million subscribers), but also controls sales of the show in non-FIC markets, as well as overseas homevid. It doesn’t have as much flexibility with “Horror Story,” as its corporate sibling, 20th Century Fox TV, already has some pre-existing output deals.

As FIC begins its second decade, its biggest challenge will be balancing aud demand for local fare with must-see imports. Lopez credits Haslingden with building a strong foundation.

FIC is “a company that has a lot of stability — all of us know each other and have essentially built the company from the ground up,” Lopez says. “In order to grow we need to continue to be able to attract more talent, to buy better content, to create more content and expand into other things.”

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