Assessing Acquisitions Execs’ Buying or Shopping Mode

By Lucy Cohen

The U.S. dollar's value has fallen below other currencies; the 2004-2005 season saw some significant successes in U.S. programming and the number of channels around the world continues to grow. In theory, buyers across the globe should be emptying their wallets in a rushed attempt to acquire as much U.S. product as possible at the L.A. Screenings '05, and this could be happening, with a few exceptions.

Noticeably missing from this VideoAge survey are the opinions of program buyers from Muslim countries, who are said to be upset at the way they're treated by immigration and other U.S. government authorities at the port of entry and departure. A U.S.-based consultant for many Muslim buyers has urged the studios, through their association (the MPAA), to pressure the U.S. authorities not to harass these executives who want to attend the L.A. Screenings. The executives are screened by the U.S. embassies and consulates well in advance.

Among the 1,000 or so TV programming execs from 70 countries who will be attending the L.A. Screenings, John Stephens of Australia's Seven Network - who acknowledged that U.S. programming accounts for 40-45 percent of his network's programming - sees the "return to strong scripted dramas," as a major strength of the U.S. market at the moment. George McGhee, who runs Program Acquisitions for all four BBC Channels, concurred: "Strengths are that narrative drama seems to be coming back and reality shows are less prominent in the U.S. schedules." McGhee explained that, despite a recent announcement by the BBC that it will invest an additional 61 million pounds (U.S.$116.4 million) into programming across all TV, radio and interactive channels (in an effort to reduce repeats in peak-time), "It is unlikely that any of these additional monies will be targeted for acquisitions." 90 percent of BBC One's schedule is spent on original programming and the remaining 10 percent is reserved for program acquisitions.

If there's another genre that seems unanimously unpopular among buyers it is the procedural crime show. Tim Worner of Australia's Seven referred negatively to a "sea of CSI and Law & Order shows." Göran Danasten of Sweden's SVT said, "This year is probably a year when I would prioritize drama over crime, since I already have some good crime in stock." Danasten explained: "Thanks to the quality of things coming out of the U.S. [and] their popularity among Swedish audiences, we are relying a lot on shows from the U.S." He stressed, "I am on a constant lookout for high-quality, preferably one-camera comedies with personality, smartness and edge. Series like The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Arrested Development have revitalized an increasingly conventional genre during the recent years and I hope they'll inspire the talent - and executives - to be more daring when it comes to this difficult type of programming." In terms of shows that are groundbreaking, Danasten said, "There have been a lot of nice things happening in the cable universe in recent years. The creative freedom in these companies has had a great effect, resulting in shows … like Nip/Tuck and !Huff. These type of high-profile shows are not only satisfying a personal taste, but are also very important to SVT." He added, "The networks are still miles behind the cable companies."

However, Peter Kolosi of RTL Klub, the biggest commercial free-to-air networks in Hungary, which commands a 38-40 percent primetime market share, explained that he wouldn't even look for comedies at the Screenings. "U.S. sitcoms absolutely don't work in Hungary," he said. "Generally, American shows play in late-night or the afternoon, but they can't get the market share we are used to during primetime. They're just not as popular as they used to be."

Iryna Kostyuk, a buyer at Inter TV Channel in the Ukraine (which has a programming schedule made up of 25 percent U.S. programming), said, "The Ukrainian market is expanding and is shifting more to a local production sector . . . Our audience's interest is shifting away from American series." Therefore, "our primary interest at the Screenings will be looking at new series in terms of the possibility of buying the format and producing the locally-adapted version," she said. "The structure of the deals is due to change as well - we won't be acquiring big volume packages any more, but rather moving into narrow-targeted acquisitions." Kolystuk said that even the great hopefuls - Desperate Housewives and Lost - will have limited success in the Ukraine. "[Those] series, I am sure, will be of great interest to a younger audience, however . . . this audience nowadays watches less TV than before, therefore I doubt these series will ever be scheduled in primetime," she said.

"The most important U.S. products for us are feature films, they are what we need for primetime," said Kolosi. Alejandro Sacasa of Televicentro de Nicaragua, Canal 2, a free-to-air national television station in Nicaragua, which commands a 50 percent audience share during primetime, gave the studios some advice when it comes to films. "If the studios focused on making more movies, mid-budget with known stars, they would make a killing on the international market, which is bigger than the U.S. domestic market last time I checked." However, both acquisitions execs from Seven - Worner and Stephens - pointed to the falling performance of features on TV as a major problem facing Australian broadcasters. "The drastic fall-off in the performance of theatrical features on free-to-air, due to DVD and PPV exposure, [is a huge problem]," said Tim Worner of Seven. "Australian broadcasters will be seeking big license fee reductions when output deals come around for negotiation."

Some buyers pointed to the fact that American shows have little staying power. RTL Klub's Kolosi said "what's popular in Hungary usually doesn't get renewed for a second season in the U.S." The BBC's George McGhee pointed to a larger problem: "shows just are not allowed to build in the U.S., they are either instant hits or [they] get cancelled," he said.

It remains to be seen whether buyers will rely entirely on studio product to capture programs with staying power. Tim Worner of Seven said, "The bulk of our programming comes from agreements with the big studios, but for the right show, you'd certainly buy it from an independent." Göran Danasten of SVT in Sweden echoed the same sentiment, "The studios are inevitably most important. The fact is, most of my needs are [better] satisfied by their huge output. But, I will attend the indie screenings as well. It is important to have the whole picture, and to always look everywhere for the best." While admitting that most of his programming comes from the big studios, NBC Universal vp of programming Steve Patscheck, who, at the Screenings will be in the market for first-run series and features for Universal Channel in Latin America and Brazil, said "currently we're experiencing tremendous success with Medical Detectives from CABLEready." He continued, "We have [also] had tremendous success with series such as The 4400, Crossing Jordan and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, so yes, we will continue to purchase American product." He added, "The pacing, writing and overall quality of U.S.-based programming seems to resonate with viewers in Latin America and Brazil."

Angel Zambrano of Argentina's Claxson said he looks for independent producers as well as studio product when programming for one of his three movie channels. "Though we buy more library product from the studios, we are happy to buy from independents too." He mentioned that he tends to look for more inventive and independent product for ISat, the movie channel geared toward younger audiences.

It seems as though U.S. shows will always find shelter in their neighbor directly to the north: Canada. "U.S. programs are really the driving force in Canada," said Kirstine Layfield, svp, programming for Alliance Atlantis Lifestyle Networks. Layfield, who buys programs for eight lifestyle channels, explained that her company buys network, cable and syndicated programming, relying mostly on reality. "We have moved so far away from being 'how-to' networks to being 'in your life' networks, so we'd love a sort of reality version of Desperate Housewives. Layfield explained that as one of the littler guys, Alliance's biggest challenge is competing with nets like the CTV and CHUM-owned stations that can simulcast. "Our biggest challenge is to try to make ourselves known as a player in the Canadian market. We have to be nimble enough to counter-program or program around our simulcasting competitors," she said.

Carlos Sanchez of Mexico's LatinAmerica Broadcasting, said that 20 percent of his programming consists of U.S. product and that "American product has never stopped being interesting. The problem is that other markets in different parts of the world are working with great quality and very small budgets. These people don't need to support the great bureaucracies and pay [loads of money] to shoot in Hollywood and New York."

Alejandro Sacasa added, "Due to production for small cable networks that serve specific niches, a BIG problem with American programming during the last 10 years has been its trend to target smaller demographics that are normally found only in the U.S." He continued, "There is an absence of programming that is designed to appeal to a broad reach of people. Therefore, the appetite for U.S. product has diminished considerably over the past 10 years. Moreover, the people [who watch shows like] Desperate Housewives will watch it on cable, so there is even less reason for a free-to-air to TV to buy it."

In terms of what he'd like to see more of at the Screenings, Sacasa said, "I would like to see studios mailing pilots and trailers ahead of the screenings. Many studios swallow too much of your time in showing you the product when you should be talking and negotiating. Many international stations can no longer attend both NATPE and the L.A. Screenings so face time is at a premium now."

About 300 TV executives are expected from the Latin American territory, which will make up the Screenings' largest buying block in terms of the number of acquisition executives, as well as the number of hours being licensed.