Crime prime for TV

Dramas top list of buyers at L.A. Screenings

A clutch of quirky crime dramas — think “24,” “Smallville,” “Alias,” “Thieves” and “Criminal Intent” — are likely to pique the interest of 1,000 foreign TV buyers who hit town over the weekend for the annual L.A. Screenings.

The event is the first chance each year for customers from abroad to assess the new fall series for the U.S. networks. Sony is even unfurling a four-story banner “Get it here!” on its studio lot to welcome clients.

The good news is that the upcoming fall skeds of the U.S. nets are awash in hour dramas, 19 in toto — of the less talky, more action-oriented variety, the ones that foreign buyers typically go for.

The bad news is that only a very small clutch of U.S. shows are likely to wow auds in Paris, Parma or Prague.

That’s because local shows have displaced U.S. series in primetime on almost all major broadcasters in Europe and elsewhere.

It’s been a long time, in fact, since a single show spurred foreign buyers at the Screenings marathon to fork out big bucks on the spot.

The last hot show to cause a bidding war at the Screenings was Steven Bochco’s “Murder One,” which crashed and burned six years ago despite critical acclaim. Foreign buyers were left holding the bag.

“In any case, it’s hard to pinpoint a single hot show because major broadcasters abroad, just like here, have different individual needs,” explained Rebecca Segal, the BBC’s rep in the U.S.

Segal said that a U.S. show can be perfectly good, but if it doesn’t fit the timeslot needs of the foreign broadcaster at that moment, the station is not likely to buy it.

Hot CBS show “CSI,” for example, still doesn’t have a deal in the U.K., partly because no British broadcaster had the appropriate slot for it and partly because distrib Alliance Atlantis is holding out for a high price.

Alliance Atlantis Distribution prexy Ted Riley told Daily Variety that when all is said and done, “CSI” will be one of the “top five drama earners abroad.”

The show will have to rake in more than $700,000 per episode in order to qualify as a financial hit abroad and make up for the deficits such shows incur domestically. Riley is also close to a deal for the show in Spain, which may be concluded at the Screenings.

While the Screenings represent a key stop on the annual international TV trade show circuit, the event has recently lost its dynamism. The major Hollywood sellers have thus made a concerted effort to telescope the Screenings into a more reasonable eight days rather than drag it out over three weeks.

To be sure, Canadians actually buy on the spot while in L.A., but that’s because they have to complete their fall skeds by early June. Most other buyers window-shop unless they have a particular slot to fill.

“We’re in a zone of over-supply,” said Warner Bros. Intl. TV prexy Jeffrey Schlesinger, who added that he’s much happier presenting buyers with “quality” shows rather than mere “quantity.”

Schlesinger is banking on deals for several of his new series, including the Superman-as-teenager drama “Smallville,” which is likely to attract buyers if only because “Lois and Clark” was a big winner abroad.

Though the top Hollywood program sellers are paid to be enthusiastic about all the pilots that get picked up by the networks, most perk up every time a drama pilot from their studio gets the greenlight and draw a deep breath for the laffers, which generally do not travel well.

Sitcoms a tougher sell

“Sitcoms are harder,” said Fox Intl. TV exec VP Marion Edwards. “Leaving aside winners like ‘The Simpsons’ or ‘Friends,’ they just don’t work as well as dramas.”

Edwards should know: Her company arguably has been the most successful seller of American shows abroad this decade, with “The X-Files,” “The Simpsons” and “NYPD Blue” bringing home the bacon around the world.

Fortunately for her division, it’s handling at least one likely new winner in “24,” a real-time drama series toplining Kiefer Sutherland that focuses on the attempted assassination of America’s first black presidential candidate. Edwards terms it “really inventive and intense.”

Between them, Fox and Warners have typically commanded the lion’s share of series on offer at the Screenings in recent years.

Traditional rivals

If a major broadcaster in Europe has an output deal with Fox, its chief rival in that territory will almost certainly be signed up with Warners. It would be hard for a single broadcaster to digest the output of both studios.

But if one goes by the numbers this year, Viacom and Disney are selling just as many new shows as Fox and Warners: eight apiece. Sony boasts seven, Universal and DreamWorks one apiece.

Thanks to media consolidation, the total number of series ultimately owned by Viacom includes shows not only produced by Paramount TV but also by CBS.

And 18 months after the merger between Viacom and CBS, the international divisions of the two still operate separately.

Paramount Intl. TV topper Gary Marenzi will be offering Steven Bochco drama “Philly,” toplining Kim Delaney, which he terms “a fastball down the middle.”

‘Survivor’ thrives

CBS Intl. prexy Armando Nunez will be selling “The Agency,” about a team of CIA agents, exec produced by feature film maven Wolfgang Petersen, and the second and third series of “Survivor.”

Of the reality show, Nunez said the first installment has already been licensed in 70% of the world, and he’s hard at work licensing the second installment, set in Australia, and the upcoming Africa-based series.

Even Japan, which usually is impervious to U.S. product, has fallen for “Survivor,” with Tokyo Broadcasting having picked up the reality show for both its digital satellite service and its over-the-air channel.