A dimmer Screenings? Only if you judge it by party lights

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Who in the world put the word out that the L.A. Screenings are downbeat this year? MThe global TV happening in Hollywood's backyard, also known as the international upfronts, is an annual bells-and- whistles influx of 1,500 or so of the world's most influential and often most affluent program-acquisitions chiefs. They're here on a quest to pick up the next big U.S. TV megahit.

It's exhausting work attending all-day screening sessions at the studios, though the evening parties on the studio lots and the dinners and cocktail gatherings around town usually ease the suffering.

Still, this year the party side of the gathering will be downsized and the numbers of pilots screened will be greatly reduced, all fallout from the WGA strike. So, yes, the Screenings probably will be slower than usual.

But in contrast to that is the fact that things probably have never been better for the U.S. international TV export business. There are new pay TV clients, telco customers, VOD operations and online and mobile ventures coming to the Screenings with cold hard cash.

Some other big customers also are gaining influence at the Screenings each year, and they're serious spenders to boot: the studios' own global channels operations.

As program buyers, they were hardly a blip on the radar six or seven years ago. Now such entities as Sony Pictures Television International's global channels operation, Fox International Channels and NBC Universal collectively reach hundreds of millions of households worldwide.

Sony has more than 50 channels in about 130 countries with a reach of 400 million homes. Fox International Channels has 95 TV services worldwide and connects with about 350 million homes. NBC Universal has channels across Europe and Asia and reaches about 28 million subscribers in 27 countries. (Disney and Turner also are stepping up as buyers.)

Andy Kaplan, Sony's international networks president, has been one of the lead executives taking the reins on the branded TV explosion.

"We have certainly become an important buyer of product for all the studios," he says.

Sony's worldwide coterie of AXN and Sony Entertainment Television channels has acquired such hits as "Desperate Housewives" from Disney and "CSI: Miami" from CBS Paramount as well as "House" and "Lost."

Kaplan echoes the thoughts of some of the most respected senior international program distribution executives, including Marion Edwards, president of international television at 20th Century Fox TV Distribution, and Gary Marenzi, co-president of MGM Worldwide Television. Both say they view the branded channels as important customers in view of the ever-increasing breadth of their footprints.

"The branded channels, and obviously our own Fox international channels, absolutely continue to be highly valued customers," Edwards says.

Adds Marenzi: "The good news is that a lot of these channels have been and are being launched on a regular basis, and they have developed into good customers for us. Just taking Sony, NBC Universal and Fox, not to mention other joint ventures and new-media entities around the world, and you are indeed seeing a lot of new market entrants."

So the Screenings might not be party central this year, but studios still can ponder whether the glass is actually way more than half full.

Steve Brennan can be reached at steve.brennan@THR.com.
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