Hard sell for H’wood

Screenings low on buzz as players wait for proven shows

Marathon screening sessions of new shows got under way over the weekend at the Hollywood studios for waves of overseas TV station buyers — though so far there’s not much hoopla in the ranks of either buyers or sellers.

“There’s not a lot of money floating around in the international market right now,” said one major seller, “so I don’t expect buyers to commit to much until they know how the shows are going to fare Stateside.” Nonetheless, major Hollywood suppliers put on a happy face as they began introducing their new primetime series.

Disney Intl. TV prexy David Hulbert unveiled his studio’s most successful pilot season ever — nine live-action primetime hopefuls — Sunday at the El Capitan theater before about 600 guests. In doing so, he worked to counter the prevailing pessimism that has recently dogged the industry.

“In markets around the world, levels of TV advertising, adjusted for sizes of economies, are still generally well below those in the U.S., have been growing steadily for most of the last decade, and have lots of headroom to grow further,” Hulbert said. “In the pay TV arena, whereas the U.S. is 85% penetrated with multichannel DTH or cable, levels of penetration internationally are half the U.S. level at best, so there is a lot of potential in this sector.”

Pointing specifically to Germany, where the bankruptcy of the Kirch Group has put a major crimp into the biz, Hulbert said, “I don’t think anyone seriously believes that the marketplace will never recover.” He admitted there has been a slowdown in ad revenues In the U.K. but pointed out, “Any slowdown comes after a 10-year period of growth, capped by the dot-com boom of the year 2000, and there are already signs of recovery.”

He also said that Britain’s new Communications Bill has generated “a lot of excitement.” The legislation will allow non-European companies to hold majority stakes in commercial broadcasters in the country — a change that he said could “positively influence the television landscape in the U.K.”

Putting in an appearance before the foreign buyers were top Mouse House execs Laurie Younger, head of global TV distribution; Ann Sweeney, president of ABC Global Networks Worldwide; and Michael Johnson, prexy of Walt Disney Intl. Jim Belushi, star of ABC’s “According to Jim” sitcom, and his band got the event off to a rousing start.

Meanwhile, there’s apparently still some tinkering going on with the schedules of the Big Six networks and some passed-over pilots that may end up getting picked up by one of the netlets or cablers.

“There’s still a lot of jostling going on with some series,” said Richard Sattler, a consultant to a handful of European stations. He believes the dust has not settled on some timeslots for the fall skeds and that a few pilots that were passed over by one web will eventually end up on another.

Eye on the skeds

Such knowledge is important to foreign buyers as they want to be assured that what they purchase has a chance of making it on domestic schedules. Otherwise they could get stuck back home with a useless number of episodes of a show that has stopped production Stateside.

In addition, overseas buyers don’t want to be denied the chance of seeing something interesting that may be resurrected by another Big Six network or cabler.

Sattler believes, for example, that a pilot for Fox called “Time Tunnel” may get snapped up by UPN and that a sitcom called “The Pitts” may make its way onto ABC.

At least one buyer said he wanted to get a peak at the latest Jerry Bruckheimer effort — not one of his four for the networks but the series “Extreme Behavior,” earmarked for Showtime.

Still other buyers said they didn’t want to miss out on a chance to screen HBO’s upcoming series, including “Wired,” “Baseball Wives” and “Carnival.”

HBO’s series have typically been distributed through Warner Bros., though they are not part of that studio’s output deals. “Sex and the City,” however, is distributed abroad by Paramount, and “Six Feet Under” is handling directly by HBO Enterprises.

What was abundantly clear by Sunday afternoon — just three days into the 10-day screenings event — is that no consensus has yet built as to any one hot show, and few if any deals had closed.

“Remember, there are many different kinds of buyers in town, from many different cultures, and with very different needs. It’s really unusual for one or two shows to attract all of them,” said on U.S. supplier.

Indie wares

Meanwhile, over in Century City, some 75 indie distribs have set up shop in the hopes of attracting buyers during the off-hours when they’re not screening product from the major studios.

The hotel halls were deserted Saturday morning, but a few buyers were spotted during the late afternoon.

Veteran international distrib Jim Marrinan said that indie suppliers are trying “to stay positive” in the wake of the worst downturn in the biz ever.

He said foreign buyers were trying to lower the license fees they pay by half in some territories.

Most high-profile show on offer among these indies is “Dinotopia,” a series spinoff of ABC’s recently aired mini, which Hallmark is handling internationally.

Hallmark exec VP Eric Pack told Daily Variety that the mini’s performance on ABC had shone “a shining light” on his company. He is offering the upcoming ABC dino series to all comers, since it is not included in the company’s output deals abroad.