The 2017 broadcast upfront season will be remembered as the year international licensing deals tipped the scales on the fate of numerous series renewals.
Several dramas that were on the bubble from a purely ratings-based standpoint got a new lease on life in part because they rake in licensing money from overseas TV outlets. NBC’s “Blindspot,” “Taken” and “Timeless” were spared the ax at home because they’ve clicked overseas. The same goes for ABC’s “Quantico,” CBS’ “Elementary” and “Hawaii Five-0,” and Fox’s “Gotham” and “Lucifer.”
The growing importance of international revenue to the overall profitability of scripted series has only heightened the profile of the annual L.A. Screenings market. Dozens of TV buyers from around the world are converging on Los Angeles this week for a whirlwind of screenings and sales pitches on studio lots. The focus of the L.A. Screenings is still largely on the broadcast network TV shows that were greenlit at the previous week’s upfront presentations in New York. But more shows produced for cable and streaming outlets are inevitably being added to each studio’s screenings menu.
“The appetite for U.S. shows from international buyers remains strong — for the right show, the show that can attract and engage audiences and give their network, platform or service an edge against their competitors,” says Keith Le Goy, Sony Pictures TV’s president of international distribution. “It’s a surgically targeted appetite but a strong one.”
The Peak TV phenomenon of 450-plus scripted series airing in the U.S. at present has had the effect of creating a bottleneck in some of the biggest overseas markets — notably the U.K., Japan, France and Germany. There are only so many imports that the largest broadcast outlets can pick up for big dollars. Broadcast TV shows have an advantage because they are typically flashier and designed for more broad-based appeal than cable and streaming fare.
“For U.K. buyers it’s about buying one or two key shows. [Last year] ITV took ‘Lethal Weapon,’ and Channel 4 tried ‘This Is Us,’” says John Peek, director of the U.K.-based programming consulting firm TAPE Consultancy. “Going in [to the L.A. Screenings] there isn’t one big show everyone is talking about. It’s wait and see.”
The increased dependence on international revenue is having an influence on the types of shows that U.S. studios and networks are investing in, as evidenced by some of this year’s renewals.
The conventional wisdom is that heavily serialized dramas don’t travel as well as close-ended procedurals. CBS has made a mint overseas with its “NCIS” and “CSI” franchises. Serialized shows that don’t have the built-in dramatic engine along the lines of legal, law enforcement or medical themes have traditionally been a harder sell. That has evolved somewhat with the diversification of broadcast, pay TV and now streaming outlets in territories that were once dominated by one or two state-run channels.
“In Italy, procedurals and [close-ended] shows tend to work better on free-to-air, while serialized shows are more successful on pay TV and OTT platforms,” says Andrea Scrosati, chief of content for Sky Italy.
But the big money is still in procedurals and genre fare. To wit, despite being a massive hit on NBC in the U.S., the family sudser “This Is Us” has been soft for Channel 4.
The major studios this year are serving up several old-school procedurals, including Sony’s “The Good Doctor” and “SWAT,” Warner Bros. TV’s “Deception,” Universal TV’s “Wisdom of the Crowd,” Fox’s “9-1-1” and “The Resident” and CBS Television Studios’ “SEAL Team.” Fox’s “The Gifted” and Disney’s “Inhumans” and “The Crossing” are new entrants in the fantasy field.
A trend that will be closely watched inside and outside U.S. borders is the wave of unabashedly American flag-waving dramas highlighting the work of elite military operatives. “The military thing has been much talked about, and I’m sure buyers will have questions about whether they will travel internationally,” says Peek. “It’s the subject of much debate.”
Buyers talk about the Big Four networks courting the Trump demo. Whether that will resonate in other markets — at a time when concerns about the U.S.’ geopolitical agenda under Trump is rising — is an open question, they say. “There’s definitely a reaction to Trump’s election win as the networks ask themselves how do we serve that audience,” says Katie Keenan, head of acquisitions for Channel 5 and Viacom Intl. Media Networks U.K., citing Universal’s “For God and Country” and CBS’ “Valor.” Both of those shows “on paper might be problematic for the international market, but we can’t say for sure until we see them,” she says.
Keenan singles out Disney’s “The Crossing” — a drama about a group of refugees from war-torn America who turn up in a small town 150 years in the future — as an intriguing prospect from this year’s crop.
“ ‘The Crossing’ looks like the most ambitious show in terms of being in the same vein as ‘Lost,’ a bold, high-concept drama,” she says.
Comedies, as always, are a tougher sell because the humor tends to be so culturally specific. Anything with a built-in brand has an advantage, and that pretty much defines Warner Bros. TV’s “Big Bang Theory” prequel “Young Sheldon.”
Although the L.A. Screenings market will be crowded with titles, sellers say the old rules of strong buzz, notable auspices and supply and demand are still reliable drivers of business. Sony’s Le Goy, for one, feels fortunate to be shopping a new medical show, “The Good Doctor,” from creator-showrunner David Shore. Shore’s Hugh Laurie starrer “House,” which ran on Fox from 2004-12, was a home run in many international markets.
“It all depends on the show and the demand for it,” says Le Goy. “Hits are rarer and therefore more valuable than ever.”
Nick Vivarelli contributed to this report.