Exporting Brands, Not Competition

By Lucy Cohen Blatter

In France, sometime this summer, TF1 will begin airing Paris Enquêtes Criminelles, a localized version of NBC Universal’s Law & Order: Criminal Intent. The series premiere, which was announced in 2005, has been held up in part due to disputes between the French producer and franchise creator/executive producer Dick Wolf, who insists on a tight rein (the contract between TF1 and NBC Universal took nearly six months to complete). When it was announced in 2005, it was the first international format deal for any U.S. procedural drama.

Jeffrey Schlesinger is Warner Bros.
International Television’s president

In the meantime, Russia’s NTV has already premiered its own versions of Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU). When SVU aired in Moscow on March 12, it was the first scripted procedural format of a U.S. series ever to air overseas. Its first and second episodes both won their ratings timeslots.

Since then, Warner Bros. has hopped on the procedural drama bandwagon, announcing that it would begin licensing format rights to Without a Trace and Cold Case. Jeffrey Schlesinger, president, Warner Bros. International Television Distribution, said: “We’ll likely focus on larger territories and take those as an example from which to learn.” Schlesinger added that, ideally he’d like to sell the formats of these shows to the broadcasters that already air the U.S. versions so that he doesn’t have to worry too much about creating competition for WB’s homegrown shows. But Schlesinger stressed that the localized versions will be tailored to the countries enough as not to cannibalize the audience. “We wouldn’t make them into comedies,” he said with a laugh. “We have to respect the integrity of the show and combine that with a healthy dose of respect for the culture and country. Obviously, the FBI doesn’t exist in other countries, so aspects like that will have to change. Music, which is very important to the shows, will have to be replaced too. So we’ll need flexibility.”

International broadcasters have always pleaded with the studios to give them more procedural, stand-alone dramas, but it seems now the dubbed U.S. version is not enough. Broadcasters want a quality show with local characters and a large potential for success. “The fact is that it’s very difficult to execute new ideas from scratch, and with our formats, international broadcasters already have a bible to use. They’re buying something that they know has worked in other countries. Since many of these shows find their footing only after two or three years, buyers are getting well-developed shows. Also,  since other seasons are not as long as U.S. seasons, they also have the added bonus of being able to choose the best episodes out there.”

Another possible advantage to these formats is that they are more economical to produce and can be cheaper than vying for the next exorbitantly priced U.S. hit. 

According to The Wall Street Journal Europe, TF1 pays NBC Universal about $130,000 an episode in return for scripts, concept and structure and consultations from NBC Uni executives. All in all, each episode costs around $1 million, about 25 percent more than the average TF1 show. But that is still much less than creating a series from scratch. So it all probably evens out.