What a difference a year makes. Last year, when U.S. distributors trekked to MIPCOM in Cannes, France, for the world’s largest programming market, “the buyers were like deer in the headlights,” recalls Gary Marenzi, co-president of MGM Worldwide Television. “Everyone had their budgets frozen or cut. Everything was shutting down.”
This year, however, Marenzi and other studio executives expect the market to be considerably brighter. With demand for American programming as high or higher than it’s ever been, one touted new show, NBC Universal’s The Event, has already been sold in nearly 200 territories around the world.
“The pace that broadcasters have been licensing the series has been extraordinary,” notes NBC Universal International Television Distribution President Belinda Menendez. “Buyers are always looking for great shows, and there was definitely an opening in the market with Lost and 24 coming to the end of their runs.”
Several factors account for the improved sales climate. Among them: rapidly rebounding TV ad revenues in major territories such as the U.K.; a strong slate of new U.S. dramas such as The Event and Hawaii Five-0 that have enormous international appeal; and the proliferation of new pay and digital channels, which offer distributors more opportunities to window their product through a variety of outlets.
Even the sluggish economy has helped. “At a time when buyers have to be very prudent in terms of how they spend their money, the U.S. studios are delivering great shows, with big stars and very high quality production, for a lot less money than it costs [buyers] to produce their own shows,” says Keith Le Goy, president of international distribution at Sony Pictures Television.
All that is also good news for the U.S. television industry, which increasingly relies on international markets to cover the rising cost of U.S. network and cable dramas.
“International markets are integral to Lionsgate and every other studio,” notes Kevin Beggs, Lionsgate president of TV programming and production. “Without the international market, it would be hard to put together the kind of signature shows we pride ourselves in producing.”
Over the last decade, the importance of those international markets has also quietly reshaped the way U.S. programs are produced. At the studios, all the top international sales executives and their teams now routinely read scripts early in the development process and offer detailed projections of a show’s potential international revenues.
Last year, Sony went so far as to combine its domestic and international TV units to more closely integrate the international perspective into its U.S. operations. “Putting our U.S. and international divisions together into one global operation recognizes the fact that the business is no longer divisible between the U.S. on one side and the international on the other,” Sony’s Le Goy notes. “It is very much a global business, and we are mindful of that in all aspects of creation, financing and making any successful TV show.”
Still, studio executives caution that international markets remain a tough, highly competitive business, with more high-quality programming being produced locally around the world and the economy wreaking havoc on programming budgets at many broadcasters.
“Some markets seem to be coming back, but others are still struggling,” says NBC Universal’s Menendez. “Spain and Greece are very challenged, and a lot of Eastern European countries are having a difficult time navigating out of the recession.”
Studio executives also stress that demand and pricing varies widely from show to show. “When you have a high-profi le drama that everyone wants, you can get paid a lot of money, and when you have shows that people aren’t as attracted to, you will either get less or find that you’re not licensing 100% of the slate,” points out Marion Edwards, Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution’s president of international TV. “It is always about the show.”
The buyer’s focus on the merits of individual shows has been particularly good for top cable originals. “We’ve done remarkably well with Mad Men and Weeds,” notes Peter Iacono, Lionsgate’s managing director of international TV. “Internationally, they go neck and neck with big broadcast shows and sometimes exceed those shows.”
MGM’s Marenzi, who has already sold the new MTV show Teen Wolf to both major broadcasters and cable outlets internationally, adds that in some ways big cable shows have more appeal because they are less likely to be quickly canceled: “A number of international clients have been burned by shows that came out of the gates much ballyhooed at the broadcast network and paid exorbitant prices, only to see them canceled at 6 or 13 episodes.”
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