America’s TV Reaches Outside Its Borders, Fuels Growth

By Lucy Cohen Blatter

As any traveler who’s spent time flipping channels in a foreign hotel knows, U.S. TV brands are everywhere and come in many different languages. Thanks to a plethora of well-known series, movies, and brands originating from the U.S., there seems to be an almost insatiable desire for American TV brands throughout the world. And judging from the industry’s growth and the investments some companies are making, TV globalization is here to stay.

Jon Helmrich, president of IBC

Last year, NBC Universal chief executive Jeff Zucker publicly stressed a desire to expand NBC’s international channels business. Zucker was quoted in the International Herald Tribune saying he wanted to nearly double his company’s foreign revenue by 2010, lifting it to $5 billion, or 30 percent of the media company’s total revenue, from 18 percent in 2006.

The company worked toward that goal by acquiring U.K.-based Sparrowhawk Media (for a reported $350 million), which reaches 60 million subscribers in 152 countries.

Experts say NBC made these moves to catch up with the other studios, where foreign revenue hovers somewhere around 18-23 percent of their overall intake. Those profits come from a two-tier model: subscription and advertising.

One studio that is now poised to enter the international channel marketplace in a big way is CBS Paramount International Television. The company lost the bulk of its channel assets during the CBS Corp. and Viacom Inc. split. Now, CBS executives are exploring which brands to utilize, and which genres to focus on when its channels go global. With over 70,000 hours of programming in its catalogue, the possibilities seem endless.

“We’re in the advanced planning stages with potential partners on virtually every continent,” said Reed Manville, president of Manville Media Consulting, who’s been brought on to lead the CBS-Paramount expansion project. “With so many hours of programming, and so many catalogues to chose from — we have rights to the Showtime, King World and Paramount programs — we can be broad or very narrow when it comes to genres.”

One company that’s already proved itself a major player in the international channels business is Sony, which reaches international destinations with its Sony Entertainment Television (SET), AXN, and Animax channels, among others. According to its president of International Networks, Andy Kaplan, for “Sony Pictures Entertainment, [the international channel business] is becoming more and more important,” he said.

Bruce Tuchman, evp of MGM Networks, would not disclose an actual dollar sum, but ensured that, “our foreign channels do represent a significant and high-growth revenue stream for MGM.”

The company’s foreign assets include MGM-branded channels, first-run pay-TV premium joint venture channels with other studios, and other equity interests in non-MGM branded cable-satellite entertainment channels such as Casaclub TV in Latin America and Portugal. MGM-branded channels, which Tuchman described as the core of his company’s international channel business, feature current and library films. The channels reach tens of millions of subscribers, are available in over 120 countries, have about 20 separate feeds, and are in well over a dozen languages.

Though the company recently signed a mobile carriage deal with Vodafone in Germany, new technologies like mobile and IPTV still serve to complement, rather than replace, the traditional modes of distribution — cable and satellite. “People have been wondering whether cable and satellite distribution will be replaced for 10 years now,” he said. “But the numbers haven’t eroded at all. They’ve grown. The new technologies offer additional forms of distribution, but they don’t replace anything.”

This sentiment was echoed by Jon Helmrich, president of Los Angeles-based IBC, who has been involved in somewhere between 20 and 30 channel launches during a career that included stints at E! and Canada’s CHUM. “If the goal of selling a channel internationally is to build brand recognition and bring in revenue, there is still no better way to do that than by launching a channel on cable or satellite. If you’re a U.S. channel and you want a U.K. presence, for example, you still need a platform like BSkyB or Virgin Media. Those are still the grand prizes.”

According to Malcolm Dudley-Smith, evp of Branded Services-Business Management, at Warner Bros. International Television Distribution, there’s no real overhaul in sight. “The linear channel business continues to deliver massive audiences and advertising dollars in the world’s major markets, and will therefore retain relevance for some time.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean Warner Bros. and the other studios won’t take advantage of the new platforms available to their channels. In the last two years, Warner Bros. has launched several audio and visual on-demand and subscription video-on-demand Warner TV channels in Asia and Europe. The channels follow the long-term success of Warner Channel, a linear programming service that reaches 20 countries in Latin America. “We are now not just focused on licensing programming, but also on creating and providing interesting linear and non-linear channels over as many established and new platforms as possible. We are moving from being just a licensor to also becoming a creator of entertainment destinations that highlight our programming,” Dudley-Smith said.

As a latecomer, CBS Paramount International Television has the advantage of entering a market where new platforms have already been tested and improved. “We have a multi-pronged focus,” Manville said. We will be adaptable to all new mediums, including mobile and IPTV. We need to be flexible about meeting the customers where they want to meet us,” he said. “In countries where the linear market is already saturated, we’ll focus on the non-linear areas, with VoD or SVoD programming.”

According to IBC’s Helmrich, success is less about which distribution medium you use and more about how you brand yourself. “Success comes when a brand really means something. You need to stick to who you say you are.” When asked which companies have been most successful at branding themselves, Helmrich pointed to Discovery, National Geographic and MTV.

Thanks to its countdown shows, reality programs, and entertainment news, E! has become a beacon of branding. The E! channels first launched on Sky in the U.K. in 2002,  and, according to Brad Wald, managing director, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, for Comcast International Media Group, they are now present in more than 100 countries within the EMEA territory. Comcast’s various Style Network channels launched in the territory in November 2007, and there are plans to launch the Golf Channel in 2009. According to Wald, revenue — and viewers — are on an upswing. “The pie is certainly getting bigger all over the world,” he said.

The transition from analog to digital television is fueling growth particularly in territories such as Eastern Europe and parts of Asia, which were slow to adopt American channels. According to Helmrich, some of the smaller territories, such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, are now most promising, thanks to a smoother transition to digital television.

Warner Bros. is making a large investment in the Indian market in particular. The company plans to launch a Warner Bros.-branded channel in collaboration with sister company Turner Entertainment Networks Asia later this year, pending regulatory approval. “We have had our eye on India for some time and are most excited about working with our colleagues at Turner in delivering a new service to this market,” Dudley-Smith said.

While newly digital TV territories provide U.S companies with the potential to make more money and reach more viewers, they all require special attention. “Every territory and every channel is completely unique,” MGM’s Tuchman said. “There’s no cookie-cutter way to do it, so you need support all over the world.”

Sony’s Kaplan agreed, saying, “You need to find the right niche and need for each operator.”  He also emphasized the importance of localization. “American programming works all over the world,” he said. “But the key to taking these channels to the next level is localization: original local production, dubbing and subtitling.”

But the demand for localization varies greatly by territory. “Some countries, like South Africa, are happy with U.S. shows exactly how they are in America, but other countries, like France, for example, require their own original shows,” Comcast’s Wald said. In countries that require highly localized programs, E! will produce local versions of countdowns, red carpet interviews and the E! News series.

“No two channels are ever the same,” said Helmrich, who, as president of IBC, now consults for companies looking to launch channels internationally. “You have to be flexible. I’ve seen my clients spend a lot of money going just one way. And then they have to spend a lot more money balancing out how much local and U.S. programming is needed.”

As with any new technology, the addition of new distribution platforms has been both a blessing and a curse. “New technologies have aided transmission and brought down costs. For example, you don’t need to dub and ship videos any more; transponder costs have gotten lower too. Those things have propelled the industry and made channel launches quicker and easier,” Helmrich said.

“But, on the business side, it’s all more complicated. With the Internet-based technologies there are more opportunities, but deal-making is also a lot more complicated than it was with just cable and satellite.”

No matter what, the business seems poised for more growth. “It maximizes return on content. Channels are about growing real long-term revenue assets, much more than program sales ever can,” Helmrich said.