Distribs try worldwide bows to staunch piracy, spur buzz

No matter where you are in the world, it’ll be hard to miss the premiere of the Fox drama “Touch.”

The 20th Century Fox TV series starring Kiefer Sutherland bows tonight in the U.S. and in more than 100 countries over the next several days, marking the latest example of networks embracing the day-and-date worldwide strategy often used for blockbuster theatrical pics.

A decade ago, it was rare for an international channel to get its hands on a U.S. series until after an entire season had finished unspooling in the U.S. In the case of ABC’snew drama “Missing,” the Ashley Judd starrer came out in nearly a dozen countries the same week it was unveiled in the U.S., and Disney gave two networks in India and the Middle East a four-day head start.

It’s not an entirely new phenomenon: “24″ drew plenty of overseas urgency, a tradition “Glee” is continuing today. And before “Missing,” Disney ABC TV Group did a pre-U.S. premiere for “Body of Proof,” not to mention multi-country rollouts for the premiere of “The River” and the finale of “Lost,” which about 60 territories got to see in tandem.

On cable, the recently wrapped second season of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” began its run in 122 countries days after the premiere episode last October on networks owned by Fox Intl. Channels, which had international rights to the drama series.

“My sense is among all the studios that produce for international markets is we’re all exploring ways that the bars can be raised,” said Ben Pyne, president of global distribution at Disney Media Networks.

As with film, the biggest reason for these coordinated strikes is curbing piracy. An episode of a series like “24″ could be found on illegal peer-to-peer networks with amateur subtitling or dubbing within hours of its U.S. premiere for unauthorized consumption. Rather than let the black market fulfill the demand for TV programming worldwide — an appetite whetted and abetted by social networks — the thinking is that getting programming into international markets by legitimate means earlier will staunch the tide of freeloading downloaders.

“The fact you can see anything you want to see at any point online, legally or illegally, pushed studios and producers to be more active in this area,” said Philippe Maigret, CEO of Endemol Studios and formerly a Disney international TV distribution exec.

But piracy isn’t the only reason. Overseas sales are a robust revenue source for studios looking to maximize profits. Global releases can come with guarantees attached from programming buyers that they’ll run shows in the period that fetches the most dollars: primetime, which has been an increasingly difficult nut to crack. While U.S. shows are still popular on TV skeds all over the world, they’re not quite as dominant as they used to be as many countries have cranked up their own homegrown production engines with local product crowding out the imports.

“Many U.S. shows don’t air in primetime internationally any longer and many struggle to find a home even in latenight and afternoon,” said Marion Edwards, president of international television at 20th Century Fox Television Distribution. International outlets “don’t need us as much as they used to, they have their own shows,” she said.

On the unscripted front, the series “Q’Viva! The Chosen” was launched in January by Endemol and XIX Entertainment across 22 countries across Latin America in three languages (the U.S. joined in weeks later on a Saturday primetime berth on Fox). Because the series followed Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony on a search for musical talent across the region, there was a creative imperative for the broad overseas push.

But another reason for pursuing this distribution strategy was to accommodate sponsorships from marketers with global ambitions including Blackberry and American Airlines, whose contributions helped defray the cost of a production said to run $50 million.

“On the one hand, it made sense to build this great talent search that in its very conception was pan-regional,” said Maigret. “And from a business standpoint we had to deliver against that for the (business) model to work for everyone.”

“Touch” also has a global sponsor attached in Unilever, which has a range of products to push in various territories. Giving international clients an earlier crack at U.S. programming was facilitated by improvements in technology allowing for episodes to be subtitled or dubbed within days of completion rather than months. But the reason TV likely won’t ever match film in the number of productions with coordinated global pushes speaks to certain logistic barriers that are much harder to cross.

For one thing, a network typically doesn’t have the time to make all the adjustments necessary to take a production from completion to international distribution given that some episodes aren’t locked until just a day or two before broadcast. Midseason series like “Touch” and “Missing” are easier to give special treatment because they have often been sitting in the can before premiere dates that are scheduled far ahead of time.

Because films typically take far longer to move from idea to distribution than TV, Edwards says there’s only so much that can be done to change TV production in ways that maximize its international opportunities. “TV is a business firmly entrenched in its own rhythms,” she said.

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