TV Production unit behind 'Downton,' 'Slap,' 'Chelsea'

After last year’s Emmy Awards, many in the biz were surprised to see “Downton Abbey’s” triumph for miniseries included in NBCUniversal’s trophy tally.

Most viewers in Australia have no idea that “The Slap,” the provocative drama series that preemed last fall on ABC1, was financed by NBCU. The same is true for “Made in Chelsea,” the U.K. reality skein that airs on Channel 4 sibling E4.

All three shows stem from the London-based NBCUniversal Intl. TV Production unit, led by a U.S. expat, Michael Edelstein, whose mandate as prexy is to expand the Peacock’s production capabilities around the world.

The two-pronged strategy is to get in on the growth in overseas markets for original local fare, and to develop content that can be exported to the U.S. and other territories.

“We are putting together some of the smartest people from around the world to create content and are blessed to work with some of the best writers, producers, directors in the business,” Edelstein says. “Our key strategy is to grow in English-language markets. …We have local businesses producing high-quality programming in the U.K., Canada and Australia, but everybody in the group understands that there are larger possibilities outside their geographic borders.”

For Edelstein, the act locally/think globally mantra makes the job as much about talent scouting for producers and entrepreneurs in far flung locales as it is about pitching shows and giving notes. It’s a good fit with his background as a producer with credits ranging from “Desperate Housewives” to “CSI.”

The division has quietly grown from about 20 employees when he joined in mid-2010 to nearly 100 as he has initiated partnerships (such as an investment in Oz’s Matchbox Pictures), acquisitions (Blighty’s Monkey Kingdom) and recruited producers and execs to steer new genre-specific imprints such as Lucky Giant Prods. (comedy) and Chocolate Media (factual). He also enlisted comedy vet Deborah Oppenheimer to serve as his Los Angeles-based exec veep and liaison to Hollywood. Oppenheimer has been working with Christopher Guest to develop a comedy series, “Family Tree,” that is envisioned as a U.S.-U.K. co-production to air concurrently in both markets. (Edelstein was in L.A. last week to shop the project, done in Guest’s signature improv style, to domestic outlets.)

“Our focus has been on handpicking talent that will give us a leg up in the future,” Edelstein said. “What we’ve been looking for is people who we think can grow the business with the right combination of capital and expertise from NBCUniversal.”

NBCU is not alone among the majors in seeing opportunity beyond U.S. borders. Just as the film biz is increasingly dependent on overseas B.O. as its primary growth engine, TV execs hope offshore channels and production can offset shrinking domestic profit margins.

Sony Pictures TV last year dispatched former ABC and Lifetime exec Andrea Wong to London to serve in much the same role as Edelstein does for NBCU.

Time Warner is parachuting into markets around the world with acquisitions and investments in production entities, notably its purchase in 2010 of the U.K.’s Shed Media. News Corp.’s purchase of Elisabeth Murdoch’s Shine Group last year was (familial considerations aside) a bid to expand its footprint in key markets.

NBCU’s push began under the Jeff Zucker regime, when the umpteenth exec shakeup in Burbank spurred then-NBC exec Angela Bromstad’s move to London to launch the Intl. TV Production wing in 2007. The following year, NBCU bought Carnival Films, the respected Brit drama producer and future home of “Downton Abbey.”

“Downton’s” success illuminates the potential for worthy programs to take off in an era of cross-platform distribution and social media-fueled word of mouth. NBCU undoubtedly didn’t see much upfront coin from the U.S. in licensing the show to PBS (which wound up with the steal of the century), but as the accolades mount, the value of “Downton” homevid, digital and ancillary rights in all territories will be significant to NBCU.

“Nobody would’ve believed a British period drama would sweep the world in the way ‘Downton’ has,” Edelstein said. “Everybody will tell you all the reasons why something can’t work. ‘Downton’ has taught all of us that great shows will find an audience.”

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