L.A. Screenings ’06: Int’l Primetime Comeback For U.S. Shows

by Lucy Cohen

This year’s Los Angeles Screenings — the organic TV market where buyers from around the world savor the flavor of the U.S. studios’ new season shows — is sure to be hectic. And that’s not just because of the three concurrent medical conventions that have made hotel rooms throughout L.A. both scarce and expensive, forcing buyers to scatter throughout the city and distributors to spread out across town; but also because of a renewed international appetite for the next big U.S. program.

         “It’s no secret to anyone that American shows have made a comeback,” said Twentieth Century Fox’s Marion Edwards. “Clients are coming to the Screenings looking for two or three shows to put into primetime,” she said.

Stephen J Davis
The BBC’s George McGhee

NBC Universal’s Belinda Menendez described the business as a pendulum, which is now swinging in favor of the U.S. studios. “There’s a lot of interest [in U.S. studio shows],” she said, “and it’s been driven by the shows, by good content,” she stressed.

And it’s not just the finished shows that are getting international attention, according to Fox’s Edwards. “There has been heightened interest in shows in-development. We’ve seen more requests to read scripts before the Screenings,” she said.

         “For many years, the international TV business was driven by movies,” Edwards noted. “That has changed. Now people are realizing that what really builds brands are series.” She added that even the French market has begun opening up to U.S. series, which have, in some choice timeslots, replaced movies.

But, Sony Pictures Television Int’l’s (SPTI) Keith LeGoy, expressed mixed feelings about this change. “Films have always been, and continue to be, incredibly valuable for broadcasters,” he said, “because they attract a younger, more affluent audience, which advertisers value. At the same time,” he said, “the greater international interest in TV series gives us more to bring to the table with our broadcast partners, so it’s all good!”

On the program buyers’ side, Pirjo Airaksinen, of Finland’s Nelonen/Channel Four said, “Movies used to be the key ratings driver on free-TV in Scandinavia, but because of early DVD releases and pay-TV, they have gone down. In the past year we’ve seen more success with series, so that’s what we’re looking for in L.A.” Airaksinen said that while her company has some pre-arranged deals with studios, she “will screen at all the studios [and is] open to all studios for strong primetime series.” She said they’d like a strong comedy replacement for That ‘70sShow, though probably for early prime rather than primetime.

But if there’s one territory that’s gotten the most press for airing U.S. shows in primetime, it’s the U.K. As an example, at last year’s Screenings, CBS Paramount International Television managed to sell all eight of its new shows to U.K. broadcasters. And, as CBS Paramount’s Armando Nuñez, Jr. said, the heightened U.K. business is part of an larger trend. “Generally speaking, there has been an increase [in territories opening up] for U.S. television series in recent years.”

“The U.K. audience has become far more accepting of U.S. programming in recent years,” said John Taite of MTV Networks Europe (MTVNE) U.K. & Ireland.

But, according to SPTI’s LeGoy, “The U.K. market has always had a very strong appetite for great U.S. shows. The exciting thing is that U.K. broadcasters are confident to air U.S. shows in primetime, which gives much greater opportunity for shows to become true hits.”

The U.K.’s increased appetite for U.S. programming in primetime stems partly from the proliferation of digital channels in the region. “There are more channels in the digital arena in Britain than ever before,” said ITV’s Jay Kandola who is attending the Screenings to “buy shows across the ITV family of channels [including ITV1, 2, 3 and 4]. A good show will always have a home somewhere within the ITV family [and] if there’s a brand-defining show for each of the channels, that would be Christmas for me.”

Of course, the explosion of channels isn’t only affecting the buying power of the Brits, it’s opening up markets all over the world. NBC Universal’s Menendez stressed that “the increase in multi-channel territories has made our customer base grow exponentially all over the world.”

But, there’s no doubt that changes are a foot in Britain.“There are a lot of new faces, or at least new seats,” said Jeff Ford of the U.K.’s Channel 4 (whose satellite channel E4 is driven by foreign acquisitions), explaining the reason behind the U.K. focus at the Screenings. “But this bravado is something we’ve seen before,” he warned. “It all comes around.” Ford emphasized the importance of being selective when it comes to buying U.S. product. “U.S. studio shows can’t necessarily save your network,” he stressed. “[Networks] have devalued their brands by buying U.S. product blindly. They have to be marketed in the correct way and placed in the right place.”

 But, he admitted, “there were a lot of very watchable shows last year.” In 2005, Channel 4 acquired My Name is Earl, Invasion and Reunion.

Sky’s David Smyth will be buying programs for the basic channel, Sky One, along with two other digital channels — Sky Two and Sky Three. “We have quite a few returning series from last year, but we’ll be looking for more,” he said. “This year we’re looking for big, hour-long dramas and family comedies.”

It seems that those two genres are hotter than ever before. “The TV industry has become more like movie industry, with people looking for the big budget, tent-pole series,” said Fox’s Edwards. And MTVNE’s Taite relished this fact: “Movie-size budgets and fresh idea have made U.S. programming increasingly hard to resist.” And that trend toward bigger productions is expected continue this year, with some big-screen directors (like Spike Lee’s CBS drama, Shark) getting into the pilot game with slick and highly produced dramas.

Ultimately, however, the L.A. Screenings presents a window for studios to monetize their new shows to the maximum. “Prices have inflated a lot, as a function of market pressure,” said Sky’s Smyth, “namely there being more channels.” But, Channel 4’s Jeff Ford warned the U.S. studios against setting their prices too high. “We want to buy the best shows at a price we feel is right. We have to have use common sense. Acquired shows are great because they’re not as expensive as producing home-grown shows, but if that ceases to be the case, then what’s the point of them?” he asked.

But besides the highly produced dramas, the genre of single camera comedies, traditionally not so hot amongst international audiences, is seeing real growth. “The reincarnation of the sitcom has been refreshing,” said MTVNE’s Taite, “It’s great to see single cam comedies like Everybody Hates Chris and My Name is Earl finding an audience,” he said. And because you should never mess with a good thing, the studios have plenty such laffers lined up for this year’s Screenings.

But the one-camera, single-narrative show isn’t only popular amongst sitcoms but dramas as well. “We’ve noticed a trend for drama series with one single narrative, where you need to get in early to see the first few episodes or you’ll be lost,” said Sky’s David Smyth. “And a lot of the pilots being proposed at the moment have the single-camera, single narrative aspect as well.”

Smyth said that while those have the potential to become tent-pole series abroad, they require clever marketing and scheduling, like making sure that “no other shows that require the same type of commitment airing at the same time.”

To ITV’s Kandola, the single-narrative series work with U.K. networks, especially. “’Authored’ pieces are a bit alien to the U.K. audiences, so they complement our programming very well.”

Also, according to BBC’s George McGhee, rather than copy U.K. programs, U.S. series should complement them. “We’re not just looking for American versions of British shows,” he said. “We want something distinctive. Because the BBC produces so much of its own programming, we don’t want quantity in acquisitions. We’re looking for original content to complement our original programming. But,” he added, “I’d be surprised if we didn’t buy anything.”

Of course, the U.K. isn’t the only country expected to open up at the Screenings, and it’s not the territory the studios are looking to infiltrate. “When we have a program, we take it and attempt to program it all over the world, in all markets and across all the media opportunities available to us,” NBC Universal’s Menendez said. 

“Most of the markets seem to be strong right now,” said SPTI’s LeGoy. But, specifically, he said, “Spain with two new stations [should] be a very interesting [territory].”

And, as usual the Latin American buyers’ contingent is proving itself a major presence at the L.A. Screenings. Nadia Zimerman of Canal 9 in Argentina, said, “We are interested in novelas, finished programs and formats. We hope to see new seasons of series we already know. I’m open to all kinds of releases,” she said; though she admitted that she doesn’t often buy comedies. “We don’t have any commitments to the studios, so we could purchase shows and material from the smaller distributors, too. I am want to see the whole landscape – from independent distributors to the majors,” she said.

 E! Entertainment Latin America’s Francisco Hernandez, said that although much of his pan-regional channel’s programming comes from E! Networks, he is looking to meet with everyone in L.A. “We want to meet with people from Baywood, Ledafilms, and other companies like that. Some of the small companies manage to get interviews with big celebrities, too, so that’s great.”