Skip to main content

We Want Their Shows, They Want Ours

The odds seem good that the 2006 NATPE conference will show a marked increase in international demand for U.S. product. American content providers are snapping up European shows, a trend that started with Survivor. As they did a decade ago, foreign buyers are gobbling up American formats, too. The street is busy in both directions.

“Our last fiscal year, which runs from the start of October to the end of September, was the biggest in our history by some margin,” notes Tom Toumazis, executive VP/managing director, Buena Vista International Television (BVIT), sizing up the global market for domestic programming. “We’re on course to exceed that performance this year [in fiscal 2006].”

U.S. companies have traditionally dominated the global TV trade. But since 2000 or so, foreign content providers quit leaning as heavily on American shows.

At the same time, because of the popularity of reality shows, European companies exporting television programs and formats to the U.S. began reporting strong sales.

Mathieu Bejot, executive director of TV France International, the French trade association that will be bringing about 10 companies to NATPE, notes that about a dozen French animated series are either airing in the U.S. or about to air.

That makes North America the second-most-important region for French program sales, after Europe, producing about 18.9 million euros ($22.9 million) in revenue in 2004, the most recent data available.

High-profile sales

In the past year, BBC Worldwide Americas has sold MI5 to A&E, Hustle to AMC and Dr. Who to Sci Fi. “To have so many high-profile sales of our dramas in a 12-month period is unusual,” says Senior VP of Co-Productions and Sales Candace Carlisle.

Yet she is not sure that this heralds growing demand for UK product in the U.S. Many American broadcasters and cable networks are still reluctant to air programming with British actors and accents.

“Hugh Laurie, the star of House, is a British actor,” Carlisle points out. “He could easily play a British doctor in the series. But he plays his part with an American accent.”

International sales executives at the major Hollywood studios also add some caveats to their generally bullish prognosis for NATPE.

“The reality programming and local productions [that drove American programming out of prime time on major broadcasters outside the U.S. in the 1990s and the early part of this decade] aren’t going away,” says Belinda Menendez, president, NBC Universal International Television Distribution. “Local production is still very important. But there is more interest in U.S. shows and willingness to schedule them in prime time.”

The most obvious examples of that trend are Buena Vista’s Lost and Desperate Housewives, two shows that are racking up record ratings around the world. But all the studios can point to rating successes among their newer shows.

More than 1 million viewers watched the January 2006 premiere of Prison Break on TV3 in Sweden, for example, and it set a rating record in Norway on TV3.

“There is no doubt that American programs are performing much better than they did a few years ago,” notes Marion Edwards, executive VP, television distribution, Twentieth Century Fox International Television, whose division handles Prison Break.

Havy promotion helps

Broadcasters also seem willing to promote top American product massively in prime time slots. This month, for example, Channel 5 erected huge billboards in London to publicize the upcoming launch of House, which is sold by NBC Universal.

Although buyers remain selective, such successes are persuading them to open their checkbooks when the right show comes along. Dawn Airey, managing director for Sky Networks in the UK, for example, recently told C21, a UK trade publication, that prices for U.S. dramas in the UK, which now top $500,000 an hour, could easily hit $750,000 this year.

Increasingly, the studios are expanding their involvement in the format business, particularly in scripted formats, where they look to create local versions of hit U.S. shows. NBC Universal, for example, has a deal to produce a local French version of Law & Order: Criminal Intent for TF1 in France, and BVIT has inked deals to create local versions of Hope & Faith in Turkey and Russia.

Sony Pictures Television International has been creating local versions of U.S. shows for over a decade with much success.

Its Russian version of The Nanny (Nyanya) is the top-rated series on CTC, and in Argentina, La Niñera, for which it has produced 176 episodes, is the No. 2 show.

Formats have also been a key entry point for international companies seeking to break into the U.S. market.

Two of the biggest formats of the last year, Fox’s American Idol, which is owned by FremantleMedia, and ABC’s Dancing With the Stars, which was produced by BBC America, are UK exports.

“British formats have been enormously successful in the U.S.,” notes David Ellender, London-based managing director of FremantleMedia International Distribution.

And, as it turns out, American formats are doing well on the other side of the pond.