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Grave new world for int’l TV buyers

Market hit hard, need lessens for L.A. Screening fare

A 900-strong phalanx of TV station buyers from overseas hits town today for the annual sales bazaar known as the L.A. Screenings.

The informal event is the first chance each year for foreign buyers of American shows to sample new primetime series just greenlit by the Big Six networks.

Over the next 10 days, they’ll be bussed from Hollywood studio to Hollywood studio to screen fall pilots, and glad-hand studio brass and TV stars. By night they’ll be wined and dined to the gills.

Only problem: Most won’t buy a single thing.

The international TV market has hit the worst speed bump in its history, with payboxes pooping out in several key territories and terrestrial stations from Berlin to Buenos Aires reeling from a global ad slump.

“When TV buyers abroad spend nowadays, it’s for the one or two shows they really want, and almost everything else sells for very little — or goes begging,” Fox Intl. TV exec VP Marion Edwards told Daily Variety.

She should know. Her company recently chalked up $1 million an episode for the final two seasons of “The Simpsons” with Britain’s Channel Four, but she is the first to say that’s an anomaly.

Now she has a new bundle of shows to pitch to overseas buyers, including dramas like David E. Kelley’s “Girls Club” and Joss Whedon’s retro space fantasy “Firefly.”

Like all good salespersons, Edwards is upbeat, but there’s also a new, more cautious tone in her voice — and in those of her counterparts at other studios.

Speaking of the cluster of problems dogging the biz — and the need for lowered expectations– one veteran commented, “Any producer Stateside who continues to claim ‘We’ll make it all back in international’ has got to be kidding.”

Similarly, Warner Bros. Intl. TV prexy Jeffrey Schlesinger said he does expect some “rationalization” in output deals with foreign stations, but believes that key deals will still get done. “Stations know how hard it is to reverse the flow if their competitor scoops them (by getting the good shows).”

In any case, sales events like the Screenings tend to acquire a momentum of their own: Once buyers are all together, their competitive juices start flowing and some good things are bound to happen.

Schlesinger, who has five new network dramas to sell, is particularly high on “Fast Lane,” which he believes could do for international what “Miami Vice” did in the 1980s. (In foreign territories, U.S. dramas are much more in demand than sitcoms and hence sell for much more.)

Edwards, who also has a handful of new dramas, ticks off Regency’s “John Doe” as a likely foreign fave and is particularly pleased to see scripted drama back big time this year.

Disney is the third supplier that will play a major role at the Screenings since it will be selling almost all of the Alphabet’s new shows. Disney Intl. TV senior VP Tom Toumazis singles out “Miracles” and “Push, Nevada” for their edginess.

“I think they’re among those with strong international potential,” he said, pointing out that Disney has sold another edgy drama, last year’s “Alias,” in almost 30 foreign territories.

Disney may also consent to screening Hallmark’s “Dinotopia,” which was a surprise last-minute addition to ABC’s sked, and distrib Hallmark had not made necessary logistical arrangements.

Another eager seller is MGM’s Simon Sutton, whose company has multiple series to sell abroad, for the first time in a decade, thanks to a distribution arrangement with NBC.

Sutton singles out “American Dreams,” about two girls who want to dance on “American Bandstand,” as a potential draw for young-skewing stations.

Change in crime scene

Among the few indie suppliers left on the international scene, Alliance Atlantis is pulling out all the stops for its “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” spinoff set in Miami. Alliance Atlantis Entertainment prexy Peter Sussman said he expects some key deals to be inked during the Screenings.

One positive change at the Screenings has been an attempt by buyers and sellers to shrink the event from 2½ weeks to 10 days.

“More buyers will be herded into each screening, and there’ll be less individual attention given to them,” one studio exec explained.

TV Norway’s top buyer John Ranelagh points out that buyers are looking more for quality than quantity from the majors with which they have oyutput deals. His has a deal with Fox.

“The demise of shows like ‘Dark Skies’ along with the end of some other long-running Fox hits at last gives us the breathing space we surely needed. For the first time in the past few years we won’t run the risk of being over-burdened with our studio partner’s product as we weigh up our on-air needs along with every studio’s new offerings,” he explains.

Finally, buyers who don’t find much to their liking at the studios can always visit the booths of indie suppliers who typically set up shop at the hotels in Century City.

A recent surge in original programming on U.S. cable — “The Shield” (which Columbia handles internationally) on FX, and “Dead Zone” and “The Monk” on USA –means these buyers have a plethora of material from which to choose.

As for actual dealmaking, the Screenings mart is essential for the Canadian contingent. They will finalize their American pickups by the end of next week before heading home for their own upfronts a week later.

Perhaps the most interesting buyers to monitor during the Screenings, however, will be the Teutonic squad. The Kirch Group is in bankruptcy, leaving its megabuck programming deals with Hollywood studios in disarray.

It’s still unclear, for example, what happens to future episodes of Paramount shows like “Enterprise” and “JAG” — which have been airing on Kirch’s majority-owned station ProSiebenSat 1 but could in theory migrate elsewhere.

It’s also unclear who will be selling Par’s upcoming series in Europe — for the last five years, the Kirch Group has been acting as a middleman for those shows. Reports are that the deal is off, and Par is handling its series directly.

Given ongoing litigation between Kirch and the studio, Paramount Intl. TV prexy Gary Marenzi would not comment.

It’s likely that ProSiebenSat 1 will start buying a few shows on its own (and not depend on programs being funneled to it from majority owner Kirch), though in what quantity remains to be seen.

From the German perspective, the good news is that Sat 1, like Germany’s other big station RTL, has seen a steady increase in successful inhouse fare.

“I haven’t seen any foreign series that compare in quality with crime series ‘Edel & Starck’ or ‘Der Bulle von Toelz,’ ” Rudiger Boess, head of international acquisitions at ProSiebenSat 1, said recently.

That is the main reason that key foreign buyers are paying less for most U.S. shows — or not buying them at all. They no longer need them in primetime slots, where their shows perform just fine.