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New Network Shows Go Global

The L.A. Screenings event is so far off the radar for most American TV viewers that you won’t even find an article on it at Wikipedia—at least not yet.

But in terms of financing new American network TV series, particularly dramas, the 1,400-1,500 international buyers who recently trekked to the L.A. Screenings to watch and buy new U.S. broadcast shows are arguably as important as the advertisers currently being wooed by network executives for the upfront ad market.

“The L.A. Screenings is our version of upfronts” for the international market, notes Armando Nuñez, president, CBS Studios International, which posted $880 million in revenue in 2010. “It kicks off the international sales process and is one of the most important events, if not the most important, we have each year.”

That makes the Screenings crucial to the ! nancial health of the network production sector. Last year, international revenue allowed CBS Studios to break even or turn a profit on most of its new shows, and international sales of many U.S. dramas now bring in more revenue than the license fees paid by U.S. broadcast networks.

“The irony is that the first cycle of international sales can generate more revenue than the license fee from the U.S. network,” notes Jeffrey Schlesinger, president, Warner Bros. International Television Distribution.

For example, The Mentalist, from Warner Bros. is now a top-rated show in France, pulling in 10 million viewers, and Schlesinger has high hopes for some of their new shows, such as Alcatraz.

Not surprisingly, the studios rolled out the red carpet for the buyers during this year’s L.A. Screenings with lavish presentations, screenings, meetings with creative talent, parties and dinners.

NBCUniversal, for example, brought in more than 30 actors and producers to meet with buyers. “The Screenings are crucial to all of our businesses— TV, theatrical and digital—and we use the time we have with the buyers to provide the optimal amount of information,” notes Belinda Menendez, president, NBCUniversal International Television Distribution and Universal Networks International, which was selling such new dramas as Grimm and Smash that attracted significant interest from buyers.

But the launch of new shows is hardly a risk-free enterprise for either buyer or seller. Many U.S. series do not make it into their second season—all of the rookie series ABC debuted last fall were cancelled—and lack of interest in some key markets can have a big impact on a studio’s bottom line.

Still, initial results from this year’s Screenings, which ran from May 18-27, were positive. “The reality is that there is a lot more money in the marketplace and demand is as strong or in some markets even stronger than it was last year,” notes Marion Edwards, president of international TV, Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution, whose Terra Nova was one of the hottest shows at the Screenings.

“The broadcasters are feeling more bullish and a lot more willing to invest again after years of trying to be cost-conscious and hold the line on programming budgets,” adds Keith LeGoy, president of international distribution, Sony Pictures Television.

LeGoy notes that some of SPT’s new high-profile dramas, like Charlie’s Angels, Pan Am and Unforgettable, offer big-budget commercial entertainment with lots of star power that can be purchased for less than the cost of producing local fare.

Over time, that value has also created a kind of virtuous circle for U.S. producers, luring more international revenue, which can then be used to create even bigger dramas that in turn have a greater chance of attracting American audiences, making them more valuable to international buyers who played a key role in funding their initial success.

“It’s a partnership that is very important for everyone,” LeGoy says.

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