Buyers shake U.S. tubes for tonic

HOLLYWOOD — One of Hollywood’s more bizarre rituals unfolded over the last two weeks — and fortunately ended on an upbeat note.

Almost 1,000 program buyers for foreign TV stations scurried about town to sift through the 50 or so upcoming primetime series for the six U.S. networks, and most gave a thumbs-up to the range and quality of what they saw.

That in itself is a good sign, since the $5 billion-a-year international TV sales biz has leveled off and Hollywood’s top distributors — the seven majors, of course — are under constant pressure to up those revs.

While few buyers other than Canucks actually signed on the dotted line while in L.A. for the Screenings, their enthusiasm seemed to coalesce around a handful of dramas — “Tarzan and Jane,” “The Handler,” “Tru Calling,” “Karen Sisco” and “Joan of Arcadia.”

This seasoned, oft cantankerous and quite disparate cadre of acquisition execs are the first viewers worldwide to watch undistracted the bulk of what Americans will see on the fall skeds.

They don’t always agree on what might work abroad: A Teuton buyer found David E Kelley’s latest effort, “The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H.,” too downbeat, but Scandis were ecstatic over its dialogue and depth of characterization.

Brits found “Whoopi” a hoot, while Continentals didn’t always get the joke. Some buyers were intrigued by HBO’s “Carnivale,” calling it “Fellini-esque,” while others found it “all over the place,” also calling it “Fellini-esque.”

To complicate things, foreign buyers are wary of tipping the competish to what they really like. And, in any case, they can’t always buy what they themselves enjoy: They have target demos to attract and particular slots to fill, just like their U.S. station counterparts.

So, while it’s not unusual to hear a Czech or Chilean exude admiration for producer Dick Wolf, he or she may end up licensing the format of “The Bachelor.”

Bart Soepnel oversees programming for pan-Euro player SBS, which operates a dozen stations as dispersed and diverse as Holland and Romania. One of those buyers who plays his cards close to his chest, Soepnel is pondering whether so many undercover cops and FBI agents in upcoming crime dramas will, as it were, kill each other off during the fall season.

“Americans are consciously or unconsciously reacting to their post-9/11 security issues. These series may not translate all that well around the world, though, of course, if a show is made well, it will probably work.”

Another veteran buyer, Jeremy Boulton of Britain’s ITV Network, says he missed seeing “relationship shows” this go-round. “Where’s the next Buffy, or Ally or ‘Moonlighting’?” he lamented.

“It’s the offbeat but endearing relationships in American shows that we most respond to,” agrees another Euro buyer. “There are too few of them left,” he says, citing “Magnum, P.I.” and “The X-Files” as two of his station’s favorites.

American shows are finding it harder to carve out a niche abroad, as they must do battle against local fare, reality formats and, indeed, older Yank series that still have an overseas following. In some territories, “Columbo” and “Quincy” still do just fine.

So what happens now? The Hollywood majors will spend the summer trying to convince foreign stations to take not only the series they want — but also a few that they don’t.

Let the games begin.

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