Not to be outdone by its domestic counterparts, Disney’s international arm held its own “upfront” presentation for 400 foreign TV buyers Sunday, touting the strength of its sitcom bench and a recovering worldwide ad market.
The overseas buyers are in town for the L.A. Screenings, and this get-together was their first with a major distributor during the 10-day viewing marathon. Execs will spend the week being shepherded from studio lot to studio lot to view clips or entire pilots of new fall shows.
Warners, for example, will start up bright and early today because it has a record number of new primetime network shows, 18, to pitch buyers. The studio’s international TV prexy Jeffrey Schlesinger told Daily Variety that he would make an effort to keep the clips short to get through them more quickly and concentrate on the ones with the most foreign potential.
Meanwhile, despite a disappointing ratings season at ABC, Mouse House mavens are hoping to emulate the international success of “Alias” and “Scrubs” with their upcoming fall series — sitcom “Hope and Faith,” actioner “Threat Matrix” and midseason hopeful “Line of Fire.”
Another of Disney/ABC’s returning sitcoms, the Jim Belushi vehicle “According to Jim,” has just been sold to Germany’s top-rated commercial station RTL, bringing that sitcom’s deals with stations abroad to 90.
No word on what price was paid by the Teutonic player, but typically sitcoms don’t fetch the same dollars abroad as hour dramas do.
In upbeat mode, the Mouse House’s top international TV manager David Hulbert told the overseas buyers Sunday that the ad market abroad was showing signs of a comeback and that multichannel TV is still expanding abroad.
He also put the accent on Disney’s localized sales force around the world — and the company’s empathy with stations abroad because of its own experience as a broadcaster as well as a seller of product.
“Not only are we a studio that produces content, but we are a broadcaster facing the same day-to-day challenges as you. We have ABC, ESPN and the Disney Channel in the USA, plus a network of 21 international Disney Channels that can be seen in over 60 countries. In addition, we play a major role in Super RTL and RTL2 in Germany, GMTV in the U.K. and HBO Ole in Latin America.
“We have people in the markets where you are based, so we understand first hand the pressures that drive you,” added Hulbert, the London-based president of Walt Disney TV Intl.
Other Mouse House mavens, including Buena Vista Worldwide TV Distribution prexy Laurie Younger, Touchstone prexy Stephen McPherson and European managing director Tom Toumazis, attended the event at the Raleigh Studios in West Hollywood. Earth, Wind & Fire performed its classic hits “Fantasy” and “September” for the guests. A panoply of laffer stars — including most of the cast of “Scrubs” “Less Than Perfect,” “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter” and “Hope and Faith” — also came out to glad-hand, even greeting the audience variously in prepared Spanish, French and German.
Foreign buyers do feel reassured when networks Stateside renew series — especially if they happen to have already purchased the first season for their station back home.
Disney told the gathering it has returned a record seven series to the upcoming fall sked of ABC, including “8 Simple Rules” as well as “Alias” and “Scrubs.”
Disney has already licensed “Alias” in 180 and “Scrubs” in 130 territories abroad, and it will also use the Screenings to work on renewals overseas.
In other Screenings developments, three producers of network primetime shows — “The Shield’s” Shawn Ryan, “24’s” Joel Surrow and “Whoopi’s” Caryn Mandabach — talked about their shows during a free-wheeling panel discussion Saturday at the Century Plaza Hotel.
Mandabach, a partner in Carsey-Werner-Mandabach, said there’s a tendency among the networks to play it safe in programming and that growing conglomeration has probably made it worse.
While she believes that so radical a character as Roseanne would be hard to launch on network TV today, she suggested that comedy as a whole does tend to flourish “under Republican administrations,” when presumably there’s more to make fun of.
C-W-M’s new fall hopeful “Whoopi” has, she said, a political edge and features a character who is a wisecracking, politically incorrect Iranian New Yorker.
Mandabach agreed with both Surrow and Ryan that there are ways to make shows more economically and that the networks, for starters, should move to a year-round pilot season — or indeed do without pilots and simply judge material on scripts and presentations.
Surrow said that shooting Fox’s “24” in L.A. makes it “more than twice” as expensive as, for example, “La Femme Nikita,” a cable show he worked on previously that was shot in Canada for $1 million an episode.
“There’s a cumulative cost of shooting in L.A. — it just spirals,” Surrow said.
FX’s “The Shield,” on the other hand, didn’t come “packaged” with agents, managers and exec producers, Ryan pointed out, and hence comes in at $1.3 million an episode.
“Also, our locations tend to be dirty rundown crack houses, and they tend to rent out cheaply,” he added.
As for how American producers relate to the international market, the panelists indicated that there’s certainly no conscious effort to write specifically for overseas, but that as creative people they were interested, in Ryan’s words, in “the global village” and in responses to their material from, in Surrow’s words, “wherever they come.”
Both “The Shield” and “24” have been widely licensed abroad since last year’s L.A. Screenings, by Sony and Fox, respectively.
“One of the last great secrets at the studios is how well (our shows) do abroad,” Ryan added as an afterthought, suggesting apparently that the studios could do better in keeping producers in the loop — and in the money.
One of the last pure indies on the TV scene, C-W-M has produced and/or licensed a number of sitcoms abroad, including “Cosby,” “Roseanne” and “That ’70s Show.”
At this Screenings, C-W-M is fielding both “Whoopi” and “The Tracy Morgan Show.” The panel was sponsored by NATPE and moderated by World Screen News editor Anna Carugati. Some 75 foreign TV buyers attended.
Meanwhile, over at the Century Plaza Hotel, where independent distributors are exhibiting, Alliance Atlantis renewed “CSI: Vegas” and “CSI: Miami” with Televisa, though the Mexican broadcaster declined to pick up the Hitler miniseries at this time.
(Eileen Tosca contributed to this story.)