U.S. Tape-Sale Market Heats Up, Fueled by Streaming and Changing Attitudes Toward Subtitles

US tape sales market
Sky / Apple / Netflix / Fremantle

American viewers have long had deep appetites for TV shows imported from overseas —  so long as the characters in those shows spoke British-accented English.

But with a crush of new streaming services in need of content and American attitudes toward subtitles warming, the market for so-called “tape sales” of local-language programming from abroad has grown more robust than ever.

“There’s no question, I think that streaming in general has made U.S. audiences not only more open, but more eager to check out local-language shows from abroad,” says Casey Bloys, chief content officer, HBO and HBO Max.

More than five years ago, a typical tape sale to a U.S. programmer would land producers five-figure dollar amounts per hour. But quality series now draw numbers in the mid- to high-six-figure range. Increasingly, competitive bidding situations can drive acquisition costs over $1 million per hour.

And if a U.S. bidder senses awards potential or the opportunity to exploit a series across multiple windows or platforms, the opportunity is there to up the investment further and turn the project into a co-production, even if it is already wrapped.

As the streaming giants nurture their global ambitions, their attention is shifting away from the United States. Nowhere is this more true than at Netflix, where the bulk of the company’s subscriber growth in coming years is expected to originate overseas. Last year, the company reorganized its programming operations around this reality, putting all television — including U.S. originals — under Bela Bajaria, who had been the streamer’s local-language head.

Netflix has spent years building up operations on the ground in Europe, Latin America, the Asia-Pacific region, the Middle East and Africa. With that has come skyrocketing investment in original local-language production. But the company also continues to pursue key acquisitions — such as “Call My Agent!” which originally aired on France 2 beginning in 2015, and found global acclaim after Netflix picked up the show. The fourth and final season premiered on the streaming giant on Jan. 21.

Other services looking to establish themselves as competitors to Netflix have also been active in the tape-sale market. HBO Max launched with “Gomorrah,” the Italian crime drama that has proved a wild success for producer Cattleya in multiple other territories, and in December debuted Denmark’s “The Investigation.” Apple TV Plus’ “Tehran,” from Israel, is widely believed to have done well for the service. (Apple, like most of its competitors, withholds viewership data.) Amazon and Hulu are also relatively active in the market. Showtime has kicked the tires on multiple shows, but has yet to buy anything.

AMC Networks has long been an established programmer of non-U.S. series for its linear channels. Now, as the company moves toward a strategy that emphasizes its targeted streaming services, it continues to be an active player in the tape-sale market. France’s “The Bureau” and Sweden’s “The Restaurant” found homes on AMC’s Sundance Now platform.

Dan McDermott, AMC Networks president of original programming, points to traditional content hotbeds such as the U.K., continental Europe and Latin America, but also emerging creative communities in places like Nigeria as targets of increased attention from U.S. programmers.

“They’ve all been producing superior premium content over the years,” McDermott says. “What’s changed, I think, most dramatically, is that the content has the ability to travel far wider. So now it’s hitting the U.S. market in a way that it wasn’t 5 to 10 years ago.”

Netfflix’s apparent success with acquisitions such as “Fauda” (Israel) and “La Casa de Papel” (Spain) and originals including “Dark” (Germany) are believed to have gone a long way towards acculturating U.S. viewers to subtitles. The popularity in the U.S. of Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite,” the first non-English language feature to win the Academy Award for best picture, “also plays a part in that,” says Kelly Miller, VP of international strategy for Endeavor Content.

But demand has its role as well. HBO Max, Apple TV Plus, Disney Plus and Comcast’s Peacock all entered the marketplace near the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which forced a global interruption to television production. Though shooting has resumed in most production hubs, it is slow going, thanks to health and safety protocols and a string of false starts forced by fluctuating infection rates. As such, those services haven’t been able to infuse their libraries with new content as quickly as they had planned.

“A combination of the pandemic halting production and the need for new programming, especially by streamers that have just entered the scene, has been a part of it,” says Miller of the increased activity in the acquisitions market.

But the uptick in tape sales appears unlikely to abate, even after the pandemic. New entrants into the streaming wars are already looking to set up shop beyond North American shores, and today’s “foreign-language” acquisitions could be the foundations of local-language libraries in non-U.S. territories. Meanwhile, in the U.S., viewers are unlikely to turn their backs on subtitles any time soon.

“Great content has no allegiance to international boundaries,” says McDermott. “The consumer wants entertaining stories and is open to wherever they hail from and whatever language they might be in.”