An International Sales Chief Who’s on Top of the World

As U.S. network and studio executives anxiously watch the early results from this fall season, another important saga in the financial success of these shows will be taking place at the 27th annual MIPCOM this week, where Jeffrey Schlesinger, Warner Bros. International Television president, will be selling the largest slate of new U.S. network fare to international markets.

“As programming gets more and more expensive to produce, the deficits are significant, and it is our job in that first window to try to at least break even by recovering as much of the deficits as possible,” Schlesinger notes.

Warner Bros. doesn’t break out revenues for WBIT. But international buyers and executives say its program sales are larger than any of the other U.S. studios and among the most successful.

The WBIT sales team often brings in more from international sales for rookie dramas than those shows get from U.S. network license fees and, in some cases, Warner’s new shows are able to break even in their first year, something that was unheard of a decade ago.

Much of the improved financial prospects for U.S. TV programming are being driven by global demand. “U.S. programming—whether it is drama series, sitcoms or feature films—are an integral part of the program strategy of more or less all international channels,” notes Gerhard Zeiler, CEO of Europe’s largest broadcaster, the RTL Group, which has deals with WBIT in a number of the markets where it has channels.

But Schlesinger, who has been at the top of WBIT’s operations since 1994 and is the longest serving international TV sales chief at any of the studios, has also played a key role in building up the international sales business that is now so important for the funding of hit U.S. shows.

Schlesinger caught the film and TV bug early, earning a degree in ! lm production at NYU and working in production for shows such as 60 Minutes before landing a job at the Children’s Television Workshop in international sales.

At CTW, he was put in charge of “the big territory of the Caribbean, which was then worth hundreds of dollars a year,” in annual revenues, Schlesinger quips with characteristic dry wit.

Success there, however, led to a series of increasingly important jobs in international sales throughout the 1980s.

During this period, public television stations had monopolies in many European markets, which limited sales opportunities. But by the time Schlesinger took the top job at WBIT in 1994, commercial and pay-TV services had launched in many markets.

This produced both a sales boom and new challenges as many broadcasters used the burgeoning commercial TV business to expand their local production.

“There were more buyers, but American product began to be displaced by local production, and you had to work harder to get your product sold,” Schlesinger recalls.

WBIT responded with pioneering efforts to use better research, technology and marketing to sell, and then promote, its programming.

Over time, that helped to change a business that had always been heavily dependent on relationships to one where “the business was much more [profit-and-loss] oriented,” Schlesinger notes.

Better marketing efforts also helped demonstrate the value of U.S. TV series, helping them return to primetime slots in the last decade.

Today, the impact of WBIT’s pioneering efforts to increase the value of U.S. programming in international markets can be seen in the willingness of some of the world’s most powerful TV executives to sing Schlesinger’s praises.

“Everyone who counts in our industry knows Jeff and everyone respects him,” notes RTL’s Zeiler, who has been doing deals with Schlesinger since the early 1990s.

“Jeff Schlesinger is far and away the brightest and most impressive international media executive I’ve ever met,” adds David Gyngell, CEO of Nine Entertainment Co. in Australia, in an email exchange.

And Gyngell, like Zeiler, characterizes Schlesinger as a tough negotiator. “I just hope he’s retired when I have to renegotiate” the Warner Bros deal, Gyngell jokes.

Such relationships have helped make WBIT the largest of any of the international sales operations.

“He is the most successful in terms of turnover,” from program sales among the studios, notes Klaus Hallig, owner of ITTC TV distribution. For many years, Hallig was in charge of acquiring North American rights for Leo Kirch, who was arguably the largest buyer of American programming in the world during the 1980s and ‘90s. Hallig is one of many execs who stress that Schlesinger’s longstanding experience with international markets has also allowed WBIT to capitalize on new market trends and technologies in recent years.

While U.S. programming remains a hot commodity, the studio is also looking to significantly expand its local production efforts, and in 2010 it acquired a majority stake in Shed Media, one of the largest independent production and distribution companies in the U.K.

“We have aspirations to be in the top 10 to 15 markets with local production in the next five years,” with a focus on non-scripted programming, Schlesinger says.

Warner has also embraced new digital distribution technologies and has launched over 45 Warner TV-branded on-demand services around the world.

All of which, Schlesinger believes, positions the studio for another strong sales year.

“Despite concerns in places like Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece,” he says, “we are finding the market very vibrant with the launch of all these new digital terrestrial channels” and the arrival of companies like Net" ix and Amazon that are expanding their international streaming video services.

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