Will ‘Joey’ travel right?

WB leads supplier of shows to primetime for 2nd year

A trio of shows — “Joey,” “Jack & Bobby” and “Veronica Mars” — have piqued the interest of foreign buyers on the Warner Bros. lot on the first full day of marathon viewing sessions at that studio.

An informal survey of buyers who screened Warner product Monday gave these shows high marks — though what, if any, series they end up buying is a whole other question.

For the second consecutive year, Warner Bros. is the leading supplier of shows to the primetime networks — with 10 new skedded shows, four waiting in the wings for a timeslot, and 16 returning ones — and thus has more shows to license abroad than any other Hollywood company.

Warners rakes in $1 billion-plus a year in license fees from foreign broadcasters for its movies and TV series.

A record 1,300 foreign program buyers are in town this week to view, and perhaps buy, the 50-odd new shows being unveiled by the various majors for the upcoming season on the Big Six networks.

The other major studios also began screening new product Monday, while 80-odd indie distribs, mostly catering to the Latin contingent, have taken up residence in the Century Plaza or the Park Hyatt to waylay wearied buyers on their way back to their hotel rooms.

Some 350 key buyers, including a number of heavyweight European players like the U.K.’s Channel Four, Germany’s Telepool and ZDF, and Italy’s Mediaset, trekked to the Warner lot Monday for day-long exposure to the 10 new shows available for licensing abroad.

Int’l market key

Warner Bros. Entertainment chairman-CEO Barry Meyer told the assembled execs that the economics of the TV biz depends increasingly on the support of the foreign market.

“We are trying to make product with global appeal,” he said, pointing to the unprecedented growth in the international biz in just 15 years: There were 29 channels in Europe in 1989, where now there are 1,500; where there were 500 folks at the Screenings then, that number has now swelled to 1,300.

Introducing the new shows, Warner Bros. Intl TV prexy Jeffrey Schlesinger pointed out that the studio had placed shows on all six networks and on every night except Saturday.

He also put the emphasis on Warners’ ability to nurture shows in subsequent seasons — especially as compared with the return rate of rival studios. Foreign buyers in recent years have been reluctant to plop money down for shows that are over-and-out after just 13 or even just six episodes.

Last year, Warner received 17 orders and had nine returnees, including the top new drama “Cold Case,” the top new sitcom “Two and a Half Men” and the top scripted show on Fox, “The OC.” Meanwhile, Fox launched 10 series and had only two return; Paramount launched six and had one return. Universal launched two and had neither return, per Schlesinger’s reckoning.

‘Proven track record’

“It is our proven track record that we’re most proud of,” Warner Bros. TV prexy Peter Roth told the assembled buyers.

He dubbed “Joey” (the sitcom that the studio and NBC are hoping becomes the next “Friends”), as “our most promising new show.” Roth said it took three dinners and two lunches to convince star Matt LeBlanc to do the show on the heels of “Friends.”

Roth told Daily Variety that waiting too long, as some of the “Seinfeld” alumni did when that show ended, simply didn’t work for them, and so he encouraged LeBlanc to “not lose the momentum.”

Roth proceeded to introduce each new series, pointing out its creative pedigree and likely hold on the audience.

About “Jack & Bobby,” he pointed out that “origin stories” are universally appealing and that the series boasts the talents of exec-producers Thomas Schlamme and Greg Berlanti. About “Veronica Mars,” he put the accent on the youth appeal of the show and its newcomer star Kristen Bell.Most buyers will probably not make up their minds or open their wallets for weeks or months after the Screenings — unless a show is really hot or they have a gaping hole in their sked to fill.

Politics may hurt ‘Jack’

As for qualifiers, buyers at the Warner lot said their main concern with “Jack & Bobby” is the fact that “America is not right now the favorite country in the world and that might negatively impact the show.” About “Veronica Mars,” they wondered if the other characters could “pull their weight”; about “Joey,” one European buyer said “expectations were very high, so just seeing one ‘friend’ rather than six had to be a letdown. I’ll need to see more episodes before I decide.”

And sometimes, as several buyers pointed out, what’s considered an also-ran is the very show that later catches fire.

“I try not to buy just because of buzz,” said one buyer Monday. “Sometimes it’s the show you least expect that will end up being right for your station.

Veteran foreign buyers know this: Back at the Screenings in 1993 everyone was (rightly) hot and heavy for the drama “ER” and only took a certain sitcom with six characters sitting on a couch because they had to.

Had these buyers realized “Friends” would be such a hit, they’d have tried to buy “life of series” from the get-go and save themselves a bunch of money. As it turned out, Warners made a mint on the eventual renewals.

Meanwhile, among the indie distribs at the Century Plaza, FremantleMedia was in negotiations Monday to license “The Apprentice” with Donald Trump to the Discovery Channel in Latin America, but lawyers are trying to reconcile stipulations from producer Mark Burnett with the standard Discovery contract, thus slowing down a final deal.

As for the format rights to the reality show, FremantleMedia reps said there is strong interest in the top territories Mexico, Brazil and Argentina. Burnett apparently has sign-off approval on what local businessman is chosen in each version.

“Latins love this format because it provides a service whereby people get a chance to learn from the pros, to see how a marketing strategy works and to find out what in the business world doesn’t work,” said Sheila Aquirre, the company’s sales rep for the region.

(Eileen Tasca contributed to this report.)