Int’l buyers lining up for fall preview

'Tarzan,' 'Sisco,' 'Poland' creating L.A. Screenings buzz

They’re back!

Some 750 foreign TV station program buyers hit town today for the L.A. Screenings, the first chance each year for overseas execs to assess the new primetime shows for the fall season.

Along with Mipcom in October and Mip TV in March, the informal 10-day screening marathon is one of the key TV trade shows — only this one is focused almost entirely on U.S. product.

Hot-ticket items already being buzzed about by foreign buyers who attended the network upfronts in New York this week are Warner’s “Tarzan and Jane,” Universal’s “Karen Sisco” and, despite its clumsy title, Fox’s “The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H.”

Buyers insist, however, that their views could change once they see the complete playing field and have time to study the dynamics of each series and its chances for success both in the U.S. and back home on their own skeds.

Sony Pictures TV Intl. prexy Michael Grindon said the biz is slowly getting back on track after a two-year funk. He pointed to an improved ad climate Stateside, which he said should spill over internationally, and an incredibly strong euro, which should translate into more dollars for continental types to spend here.

In addition to the three dozen new network primetime dramas, comedies and reality shows, there are a clutch of new original cable series and minis up for grabs — from “Nip/Tuck” on FX and “Traffik” on USA to “Carnivale” on HBO.

The seven Hollywood majors are distributing 36 of the 37 new primetime shows overseas, with Warner Bros. repping an impressive 18 scattered around the various networks — not counting the new HBO series it has on offer or several midseason hopefuls.

Sony’s Grindon said he’s bullish about his unit’s offerings, including “Joan of Arcadia,” an unusual hour with spiritual overtones on CBS, and “Kingdom Hospital,” a Stephen King-penned series for midseason that is otherworldly in a completely different way.

Meanwhile, MGM, which licenses both NBC- and DreamWorks-produced series abroad, this year is repping DreamWorks drama “Las Vegas” and Peacock sitcom “Happy Family.”

Carsey-Werner-Mandabach is back in the foreign fray as the distributor of two sitcoms, “Whoopi” and “The Tracy Morgan Show,” both toplining black stars.

CWM, the only non-major to represent network primetime shows, will be seeing clients at its offices.

In addition, a number of smaller indie players, from doc distrib GRB to specialty distrib Salsa, will set up shop at the Park Hyatt Hotel in hopes of enticing buyers to their booths during off-hours.

For 10 days, buyers traipse from studio lot to studio lot to screen new fall primetime offerings, hear the pitch from the top execs and glad-hand with stars. Big parties on the lot have been nixed this year, with only Disney pulling out all the stops with a bash Sunday at Raleigh Studios.

The Screenings is expected to be a much more focused and low-key affair, a reflection of the fact that the international TV market has peaked. The double-digit growth curve of the ’90s has flattened, and prices for TV series have plateaued.

Foreign stations are making their own homegrown fare and increasingly relegating U.S. product to the nooks and crannies of their schedules.

“If it’s a hit, we want it, and we’ll pay accordingly. If not, forget it,” is how one buyer described the new mantra from abroad.

Last year the hot ticket was “CSI: Miami” — not surprising, since the original Vegas-set forensics drama was already a hit abroad.

Like the original, “CSI: Miami” was picked up over the summer by Britain’s Channel Five, while pubcaster BBC went for Fox’s top newcomer, “24.”

The behavior of British buyers — who take their time, guard their purse strings and only ever fork out for that one special show — is increasingly being emulated on the Continent.

In other words, buyers from just about everywhere are studiously understated in their enthusiasm for U.S. shows. It may be a posturing game, but it’s being played better and by more participants worldwide.

“They’re only excited if they smell a hit,” said one longtime veteran of the international biz who has noticed the change in buyer tactics.

Of course, if there is clamor for a particular show, the lucky distrib can corral substantial license fees overseas.

Not all stations from abroad are going after the same kind of show.

The top mainstream broadcasters generally prefer shows with broad audience appeal — perhaps the “JAG” spinoff with “CSI” overtones called “NCIS” or a family drama with “Touched by an Angel” tints like “Joan of Arcadia.”

More youth-oriented niche channels might be better served with WB-style shows like “Tarzan and Jane,” which will try to do for the jungle legend what “Smallville” did for Superman, or Fox’s offbeat female-skewing midseason dramedy “Wonderfalls.”

Still others, like niche-oriented alternative stations, may opt for HBO’s “Carnivale,” Universal’s “Couplings” or Fox’s “Skin.”

The only buyers who have to leave L.A. with a full bag and an empty pocketbook are the Canadians, who announce their own fall skeds in two weeks and generally air U.S. shows day-and-date with their U.S. exposure.

At the other extreme are the Aussies from networks Seven, Nine and Ten, who essentially come to town to see what they have to air: Each has long-term output deals with two or three of the Hollywood majors and hence will be taking those companies’ series no matter what.

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