New sibs make a show of unity

U, NBC preen at Screenings

Just 10 days into the merger of NBC and Universal, the international distrib arms of the two companies pulled together plans to mount joint viewing sessions during the L.A. Screenings event.

A 150-strong swath of the 1,300 foreign program buyers in town for the 10-day viewing marathon traipsed to the Universal lot Tuesday to view the four new primetime series the studio is distribbing as well as nonscripted projects from the Peacock’s international arm.

Universal TV Intl. prexy Belinda Menendez told Daily Variety that her unit is working closely with her counterparts at NBC Enterprises.

“We’re screening together, but it’s pretty much business as usual. Buyers don’t seem confused by the situation,” she said.

A group of seven execs from NBC Enterprises and Universal Domestic TV Distribution recently assumed expanded duties in the merged operation, which is now called NBC Universal TV Distribution.

U dominant globally

On the international side, Universal is definitely the dominant force, with its movies, deep catalog, output deals and foreign TV channels.

Menendez herself has just gotten a new reporting line into Frederick Huntsberry, the newly minted exec VP of domestic and international syndication for NBC U TV Distribution. She continues to report to prexy-chief operating officer of Universal Pictures Rick Finkelstein.

And NBC Enterprises exec VP Jerry Petry has taken on expanded duties as the exec responsible for worldwide business operations and sales strategy for the combo. Petry’s former boss Ed Wilson ankled several weeks ago, and Petry now reports to Huntsberry.

Meanwhile Leslie Jones, whose title is VP, international sales and format production, is the key exec on the ground handling sales of the Peacock’s reality series abroad.

Buyers seemed either resigned to the fact that almost all the top-tier product on offer has coalesced into the hands of five congloms — or they’re reluctant to voice any objection.

‘Tremendous reaction’

As for what shows foreign buyers seemed enthused about, Menendez said she had gotten “tremendous reaction” to the sitcom “Savages,” which will air on ABC. “It has a rugged edge and appeals to that male demo people are going after,” Menendez said.

She also pointed to the tentatively titled medical drama “House” as a likely winner this fall; it will air directly behind “American Idol” Tuesdays on Fox.

She’s also hopeful the studio’s format of the Brit hit “The Office” will catch on with foreign buyers: “Even British buyers complimented us on the U.S. version,” Menendez said. (The studio’s format of another Brit hit “Coupling” crashed and burned on NBC last season.)

Though the company has no footage yet on producer Dick Wolf’s latest “Law & Order” installment, “Trial by Jury,” foreign stations are already asking for details. (Jerry Orbach will play a role, but other casting has not yet been announced.) In the U.K., greater visibility for the Wolf franchise (they air variously on Channel 5, Sky and the Hallmark Channel) has boosted ratings, Menendez said.

Jones, meanwhile, is pushing the Peacock’s latest reality offering “Outback Jack” from Bruce Nash Entertainment (and seen on TBS) as well as renewals on “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” which has been licensed in 95 foreign territories.

(NBC’s inhouse-produced upcoming dramas and sitcoms — including “Hawaii” and “Revelations” — are handled internationally by MGM in a deal that has almost two years to run.)

A number of producers and stars from the merged companies’ new shows graced the U back lot Monday night for a Screenings shindig. It was the first time U had ever hosted a Screenings event on the back lot.

Buyers looking cool

Several foreign buyers have told Daily Variety they have no need to rush to buy anything they’ve seen so far at the studios, though that could change before the week ends — or just be a negotiating tactic.

After all, foreign buyers, like their U.S. counterparts, will have some gaping holes to fill once shows like “Friends” and “NYPD Blue” leave their air.

“This year, it’s all about finding replacement series for veterans like “Friends,” “Frasier,” “Sex and the City” and “NYPD Blue,” said Richard Sattler, a rep for several Scandi buyers at the Screenings.

Sattler said Warners “Joey” could be “a perfect fit” for the “Friends” vacancy on one of his client stations, TV2 Norway, but that filling the “Frasier” slot could be harder.

“We have yet to see a second sitcom we really adore,” he told Daily Variety Tuesday.

As for his clients from Iceland at station RUV, Sattler said the real priority was a “Sex and the City” replacement.

Likeliest candidate so far is Disney’s drama “Desperate Housewives,” which Sattler said brings “strong, sexy and slightly crazy female characters back to the forefront.”

As for a worthy follow-up to copshow “NYPD Blue,” several buyers seemed pleased with Stephen Bochco’s own blind-cop pilot, which is aptly named “Blind Justice.” It’s being sold by Paramount.

“It’s edgy,” Sattler said, “but more important, it’s believable, and that’s the one component we were most worried about with that storyline.”

Over at the Paramount lot Tuesday sales execs were upbeat about the response to the studio’s latest offerings.

“We stuck with scripted comedies and dramas because they’ve been very successful in international markets. A lot of reality shows don’t last that long and have limited episodes,” Paramount Intl. TV prexy Gary Marenzi told Daily Variety Tuesday.

He also pointed out that there are no easy parameters or set rules for selling into the foreign market as there are, say, in the homevideo or domestic TV arena. Each country has its own TV traditions, and each has different slots that need to be filled.

Marenzi added that he was bullish about his company’s overall slate, pointing to top talents including Bochco, David Milch, Aaron Spelling, Mel Gibson and Bob Cooper who are responsible for the shows he’s selling.

As for buyers who were attending the screening of the seven shows Paramount has pilots of, several told Daily Variety that dramas “Blind Justice” and “Medical Investigation” were the clear standouts.

Several buyers, including a contingent from Finnish station Channel Four, echoed, however, a widespread feeling among the foreign contingent about the sitcoms in contention. Overall, one griped, the half-hours on offer from the studios are “dull, derivative or just plain not sassy enough.”

(In that regard they are just reflecting what U.S. execs already know: Viewers, especially younger ones, have been increasingly tuning out these predictable laffers and turning to other fare.)

A few buyers said they were open to picking up alternative fare like shows made for cable rather than stick with Big Six offerings. In this respect one buyer pointed to Sony’s N.Y. firefighters drama “Rescue Me,” which is destined for cabler FX, as “a diamond in the rough.”

Finally, execs at various studios said it was still too early in the 10-day marathon to talk about completed deals.