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Frosh fare faces bumpy road abroad

So what do global auds really want to watch?

The answer to that question is worth several billion dollars a year to the Hollywood studios as they marshal their resources to launch movies or license TV shows abroad.

As phalanxes of execs hit the Croisette to tout “The Da Vinci Code,” “World Trade Center” and “Dreamgirls” at Cannes, another, less glamorous campaign is unfolding back in Hollywood.

It’s called the L.A. Screenings, and it’s an amorphous event in which 1,500-odd foreign TV execs hit town to assess the new fall series the U.S. nets are planning for primetime.

“There’s really nothing new or exciting on offer from Hollywood,” is the typical opening salvo from buyers, though that’s mostly a tactical ploy. By the time they’ve seen three dozen new shows at the six Hollywood studios, they’re usually ready to take home something, if only to justify the time and effort.

What that something is differs considerably from territory to territory. And the global hits — those that rate well from Bologna to Bangalore — are not always what you’d expect.

“What works and what doesn’t on TV may even be less predictable than on the bigscreen,” says one longtime U.S. program supplier. “When you consider the plethora of TV stations abroad, figuring out the odds for any show is even more daunting.”

A few Yank shows are practically fool-proof, translatable and palatable just about everywhere. Thus, “CSI: Miami” — easy to follow and easy on the eye — works just about everywhere. So do shows that for a time define the American zeitgeist: “The Simpsons,” “Sex and the City” and now “Lost.”

But others — dramas that plumb the American legal system, sitcoms that pivot on the inner workings of Hollywood, stories that play off politics or sports — are generally a tough sell abroad.

If it’s too heady or writerly, it will likely enthrall the Brits and the Canucks, but the Germans and the Italians probably will pass — “or at least not pay as much as they might,” is how another distrib put it.

Thus, a complex drama like Aaron Sorkin’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” could be challenging for foreign stations to slot, while the straightforward “Ugly Betty,” an ugly-duckling tale set in the fashion industry, may more easily strike a chord. (The original Latin telenovela “Betty la Fea” was an international hit.)

The good news for Hollywood sellers is the greater segmentation among foreign broadcasters: Every sizable territory now has a cerebral, upscale station; a middle-brow, broadly commercial outlet; and one or more hip, younger-skewing players.

As for comedy, the reactions from overseas buyers are harder to categorize: “Friends” was a cult fave in several English-language territories but left other markets underwhelmed. But then “My Name Is Earl” and “Everybody Hates Chris” — descendants of hee-haw laffers — have surprisingly numerous takers abroad.

High concepts also can be a good bet — “24” is going great guns overseas — but not if the concept gets overworked.

There are a number of high-concept shows vying for attention this go-round, from “Jericho” (“Lost” meets “The Day After”) to “Big Day” (“24” weds “Meet the Parents”) to “Traveler” (“The Fugitive” meets “Enemy of the State”).

Foreign buyers will have to figure out for themselves whether the premises are sustainable or simply derivative.

Before that, of course, they’ll have to assess whether the shows will even make it to the end of the season Stateside.

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