Despite slump, buyers go for drama

'Fastlane,' 'John Doe,' 'Miracles' among popular shows

HOLLYWOOD — The bizarre ritual known as the L.A. Screenings began winding down late last week with overseas buyers and Hollywood sellers breathing a sigh of relief.

The marathon sessions at the Hollywood studios upturned a half-dozen shows that the majority of the 800 attendees from around the world gave a provisional thumbs-up to.

Among the more popular were Warners’ “Fastlane,” Fox’s “John Doe,” Disney’s “Miracles” and U’s “RHD/LA” as well as the spinoff from hit “CSI: Miami,” the only entrant being sold by an indie distrib. A few sitcoms including Disney’s “8 Simple Rules” and Fox’s “Still Standing” got high marks.

Not that there is much actual buying at the Screenings, which unspool May 17 through 27.

Key stations in most of the major territories have output deals with the Hollywood majors, which means they get the shows distributed by studios they’ve inked with whether they like them or not.

“Essentially we sit in screening rooms thankful that we got whatever good shows are being shown, or dismayed if we know such shows are going to our competitor,” as one buyer put it. Or even, he added, “downright irked if there’s simply too much stuff being delivered to us.”

This year, Warners, Fox and Disney account for 60% of the upcoming primetime skeds on the six U.S. networks, a sign that consolidation has really taken hold.

For sellers, the relief came in the form of general praise from buyers that the range and quality of shows was up from the past few seasons.

After all, the international TV biz is in the biggest funk in 30 years and revenues from foreign sales of American TV shows are expected to be down this year.

Hollywood suppliers are thus in something of a somber mood.

“One thing’s for certain,” Fox Intl. TV exec VP Marion Edwards says, “we’re now the salt and pepper in the skeds of foreign broadcasters. We’re no longer the steak itself.”

That’s certainly true in the two main foreign markets for U.S. shows — Germany and the U.K.

In Germany, the powerhouse Kirch Group has gone belly up, destabilizing the entire Teutonic TV landscape.

German buyers in L.A. insist that times have changed and that long-term output deals — of the kind that drove Kirch to the wall — are a dying breed.

Both Rudiger Boess of Kirch’s ProSiebenSat1 and Gerhard Zeiler of RTL said their stations want the best American shows. But they said they didn’t plan to get stuck in future with shows they cannot use.

Warner’s plentiful product, for one, is still looking for a home on a Teutonic terrestrial station in the wake of the bankruptcy of its erstwhile partner Kinowelt.

Paramount has an even bigger problem. For the last five years its partner Kirch handled its series across Europe and paid the studio a handsome price per episode to do so.

With that deal a victim of the bankruptcy, Par will now have to boost its own sales team and sell shows to Euro stations which are already chock-a-block with output deals from the other studios. That won’t be easy.

The Brits also continue to be picky buyers, with not a single deal sealed by any of the five major station Blighty buyers during the first half of the Screenings. Channel Five’s buyer Jeff Ford termed the offerings overall “underwhelming.”

The only buyers who do sign on the dotted line during the Screenings are the Canadians.

Chum picked up rights to “Smallville,” which used to be handled by the Global Network, and will relaunch it on Toronto station City-tv. Other new shows Chum locked down include Warners’ dramas “Birds of Prey” and “Twilight Zone,” Universal’s Michael Mann drama “RHD/LA” and Fox’s “John Doe.”

Leading commercial web CTV picked up “CSI: Miami,” MGM’s Donnie Wahlberg starrer “Boomtown,” John Ritter sitcom “8 Simple Rules.”

(Brendan Kelly in Montreal and Eileen Tasca in Hollywood contributed to this report.)