Dramatic turn at Screenings

Int'l buying spree expected

A record 800 foreign TV station buyers hit town today for the annual L.A. Screenings — and for the first time in four years, they’re expected to do some serious shopping.

The reason for the spree is that a substantial number of dramas — traditionally the U.S. fare that plays best on TV screens abroad — has been greenlit by the U.S. networks.

In all, the six U.S. webs ordered 38 new shows, 21 of which are hour dramas, as against 44 new shows last year, 17 of which were dramas.

The L.A. Screenings is one of the key appointments on the international TV market calendar, along with the Mip and Mipcom tradeshows in Cannes and the National Assn. of Television Program Executives confab in New Orleans.

Some $500 million is likely to be dropped into Hollywood coffers during the marathon, though easily 80% of it will be Canadian money. They’re the only folks who have to go back home, set their skeds, and begin airing shows day and date with the U.S. nets.

Familiar names

Among producers with new shows whose work traditionally has traveled well are such top writer and producer names as John Wells, Dick Wolf, David E. Kelley and Chris Carter. And for midseason, new projects from Steven Bochco and “Titanic” director James Cameron will join the fray.

Marion Edwards, exec VP of Twentieth Century Fox Intl. TV, probably will be the busiest studio exec during the Screenings. She told Daily Variety that her team will be selling between 21 and 23 shows that are either newly greenlit or renewed on the skeds for next fall.

“In addition to our pickups for this fall, people sometimes underestimate the importance of established shows. … We’ll be spending the next two weeks doing renewals on some of these as well as selling new shows,” she said.

And while it’s the Hollywood majors who own distribution rights to most of the product that made it on the network skeds, the webs themselves are increasingly demanding ownership stakes in the shows they air.

Thus CBS itself will be licensing foreign rights to three new shows, including the drama “Judging Amy” as well as to five returning programs.

“We’re very much up there with the studios,” said Rainer Siek, the president of CBS Broadcast Intl., the Eye web’s international sales unit.

The emphasis on hour shows comes at a particularly propitious moment: U.S. studio suppliers have recently seen their jobs get tougher as foreign buyers, especially the major Euro broadcasters, have become pickier. Most foreign TV skeds rely mainly on local programming — to the disadvantage of American imports.

Laffers lost in translation

The U.S. networks’ traditionally heavy reliance on sitcoms has not gone over well with foreign TV buyers, who, outside of English-speaking territories, usually don’t get the jokes, and so have gone home from the two-week L.A. market marathons overfed but underwhelmed.

Moreover, the Euros have griped loud and long about the volume of U.S. fare they had to ingest — and the prices they paid — during the last big round of output deals in 1996-1997. They have, in short, been in no mood to plop down dough unless they’re really enthused about what’s being offered.

While a number of the top foreign broadcasters have output deals with one or another Hollywood major, most come to the Screenings looking for one or two gems on the open market.

“Of course buyers would rather be selective about what they pick up, but there’s still a lot of competition out there,” Paramount Intl. TV president Gary Marenzi told Daily Variety.

The Screenings wind down June 4.