In L.A., the WorldWatches, and Buys

As network sales executives grappled with advertisers in New York last week to set upfront pricing, also important conversations about the funding of U.S. network programs were being had during the L.A. Screenings, where more than 1,500 international buyers gathered for a first look at the 2012-13 broadcast series.

What happens at the L.A. Screenings, which ran May 15-25, has become critical for the overall health of the U.S. TV industry because of the growing importance of international sales in financing new programs. International sales for new U.S. dramas often exceed the license fees paid by the stateside networks for new shows.

“It is very expensive to produce for network television, and the cost of production is just getting higher,” says Marion Edwards, president of international television at Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution. “It would be impossible to contemplate [these] productions without international markets.”

With so much on the line, much of the news from this year’s Screenings was good, with studio executives reporting that demand for U.S. shows remains stronger than ever, and attendance hitting record levels.

“The L.A. Screenings is the first impactful opportunity where broadcasters across the globe really get the first bite of the apple of the new shows coming out of Hollywood, and it is a bite they are taking with increasing hunger,” says Keith LeGoy, president of international distribution, Sony Pictures Television. “Demand for U.S. shows has never been higher.”

"There is very high demand for our shows around the world," due, in part, to the star power and high production values of U.S. network fare, adds Ben Pyne, president, global distribution, Disney Media Networks. “We bring a feature-film quality to TV.”

But as studio executives rolled out the red carpet for happy, hungry international buyers, with glitzy screenings and appearances by top talent, there were still some worrying trends. This was the second year in a row that the U.S. networks were focused on commissioning comedies, which tend not to perform strongly in international markets, and many of last year’s high-profile dramas were quickly cancelled.

Meanwhile, the ongoing Euro Crisis has been battering Western Europe, which remains the most important region for international sales.

Still, studio executives stress that they have seen strong demand for their shows since the start of the economic downturn in 2008, in part because their big-budget dramas cost less to license than expensive local productions.

“The economic situation since 2008 has been challenging and the Euro Crisis adds another layer on top of that, but we have still been able to do well with our shows,” says Belinda Menendez, president, NBCUniversal International Television Distribution and Universal Networks International, which saw strong interest in the new Dick Wolf drama, Chicago Fire, during the Screenings.

Menendez reports strong attendance at her group’s screenings and notes that three of their returning shows have been sold in more than 50 territories worldwide. “We’re very optimistic about demand for American product,” she says.

Edwards and others also stress that comedies are currently performing better in international markets and that there are also a number of newer outlets for their fare.

Sony, Disney and other U.S. studios are increasingly remaking local versions of popular U.S. sitcoms in international markets. The studios are reporting growing demand for their product from new over-the-top services that are being launched by Netflix, Amazon and others in international markets.

To capitalize on that demand, a number of studios have been launching their own subscription VOD (SVOD) services. Disney has inked 12 deals for its SVOD product, Hot From the U.S., which provides access to shows 24 to 48 hours after they air in the States. The company has concluded several European deals for its ABC TV On Demand, which provides access to shows after their local broadcast markets, Pyne reports.

The studios are also working harder to raise the profile of their shows with international launches closely timed to the U.S. premiere.

Disney has been working in that direction for a number of years. In late March, Twentieth launched Touch in more than 100 territories. That effort included a global buy from Unilever and a high-profile international media tour by series star Kiefer Sutherland.

“It is difficult to do that with every show, but it is becoming a model because it reduces piracy and creates a kind of big event everyone wants to have,” Edwards says.

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