Disney hosts international upfront

ABC chief McPherson: "We're finally back making TV"

More L.A. Screenings coverage

The Mouse House kicked the L.A. Screenings into high gear with its seventh annual international upfront event Sunday evening at its Burbank headquarters.

The barbecue on the back lot was staged principally to take the wraps off its new fall primetime series and introduce foreign buyers to the stars and the producers behind them.

Among the shows on offer are fall primetime dramas "Flash Forward" and "Happy Town" and comedy "Cougar Town" as well as new ABC Family fare like "Ruby and the Rockits" and the medieval-set syndicated series "Legend of the Seeker."

Other of the major studios will host similar events during the week and all will be screening their new product through Friday.

Disney has for the past five years fielded some of the top-selling series internationally, raking in eyebrow-raising prices per episode for "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" and continuing with strong revenues for "Grey's Anatomy" and "Ugly Betty." And that's without factoring in the financial returns from and cultural impact on tweens of "Hannah Montana" and other shows from ABC Family around the world.

Given the depressed global economy and a generally more cost-conscious spirit pervading the Hollywood studios these days, however, expectations for price increases for shows are decidedly lower this go-round: a modest uptick, if that, is how one veteran attendee put it.

Some 400 buyers from abroad showed up Sunday evening at the Legends Plaza on the Mouse's lot to mingle with talent and Disney execs before getting down to business on Memorial Day and beyond. Screenings sessions are typically not just for the clients who have output deals with each major studio but for all buyers so that everyone gets a chance to see who's got what, and what might be left over on the open market.

On hand to welcome the international contingent were Ben Pyne, president of global distribution for Disney-ABC Worldwide Television, and Steve McPherson, the president of ABC Entertainment Group.

Among the many stars who glad-handed were "Cougar's" Courteney Cox, "Flash's" Sonya Walger and John Cho and "Ruby's" Alexa Vega as well as established international faves like Sally Field ("Brothers & Sisters") and Felicity Huffman and James Denton ("Desperate Housewives").

Pyne put the accent on the company's entire content portfolio, not only the handful of new series for ABC primetime on offer at the event but also the movies from the Disney film studio, the franchise properties from ABC Family, sports programming from sister company ESPN and returning primetime series and midseason entries like "Castle" and "Raising the Bar."

"No one," he said, "tells those stories better than we do, and it shows around the world."

Pyne then pointed to the fact that ABC boasts the top two scripted shows on television, "Grey's Anatomy" and "Desperate Housewives," that in Europe Disney dramas outscore broadcasters' primetime average rating by nearly 30% and that in Australia "Hannah Montana" has been No. 1 with kids in its time slot across all other TV channels for five consecutive quarters.

"Whether your audience is kids, millennials, adults or even sports fans, we've got the content that connects and moves them," Pyne said.

Pyne made a point of singling out the product on hand from ABC Family, which though less high-profile than the Alphabet's primetime series, is making inroads in schedules abroad, and bringing in respectable coin:

"[ABC Family president] Paul Lee and his team at ABC Family have established a real connection with the millennial audience. With a track record that includes ‘Kyle XY,' ‘Greek,' ‘Lincoln Heights' and most recently the global phenom of ‘Secret Life of an American Teenager,' they're keeping the momentum going with three
new series premiering this summer," he told the buyers.

And judging solely from the reaction of buyers watching the various clips, it was the comedies "Cougar" (for ABC) and "Ruby" (for ABC Family) and the "Twin Peaks"-like dramedy "Happy Town" (for ABC), which struck a chord with these buyers.

For his part, McPherson put the emphasis on the studio's return to normalcy after the disruptions of last year's strike-challenged development season: "We're finally back making TV," he said, adding "when you finally screen a show that hits the mark there's nothing like it."

He went on to stress that despite "cost containment" throughout the business, Disney had not skimped on the most crucial thing: "the development of shows."

The 1,000-plus buyers in town for the Screenings will begin in earnest Memorial Day with visits to various studio lots to check out the new wares.

The Screenings marathon is much more streamlined than in past years, with all studio suppliers planning to wrap up by Friday.

Already Canadian program buyers, who hit town last Thursday, have filled their shopping bags, mostly along the lines of their ongoing output deals, with CTV and CanWest Global essentially splitting up the major studio slates between them. They set their own schedules next week in Canada and hence do not have the luxury of waiting until the fall to make buying decisions.
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