Uh Oh: America's Fall TV Pilots are Flopping in Foreign Markets
Too niche and violent or just uninspiring, the new shows underwhelm buyers as local shows are "taking back power," says one expert, threatening Hollywood's $3 billion lifeline.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
With such groundbreaking shows as Game of Thrones, Homeland and Breaking Bad among this year's Emmy nominees, one wouldn't think American television is losing its edge.
But talk to the people who buy U.S. series around the world, and it's a different story. International TV executives who have watched studio pilots for the upcoming fall season have been, well, underwhelmed. While a few shows are generating buzz -- including CBS' Sherlock Holmes entry Elementary; the Fox/Warner Bros. serial killer drama The Following, starring Kevin Bacon; and the NBC/Warner Bros. action drama Revolution, from J.J. Abrams -- "mediocre" and "tepid" are typical assessments of this year's crop.
"There are a handful of shows that you can be pretty sure will get picked up, maybe one or two where a second season looks likely, but there wasn't one where you'd bet on a season three," says Dirk Schweitzer, who buys for German licensing giant Tele Munchen Group. A top Eastern European buyer agrees. "Certainly nothing on the level of a House or a Desperate Housewives," he says, citing two of the most globally successful U.S. series, both of which ended their runs last season.
A lack of new hits would be a big problem for Hollywood, which counts on the billions in license fees foreign broadcasters pay studios every year for rights to air shows from Barcelona to Buenos Aires. According to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, international TV rights were worth $3.3 billion to American producers in 2010. Several insiders say the number is higher now.
That money is still coming in, of course. Canadian network buyers again bulk-bought at the annual L.A. Screenings showcase in May, returning home with a full slate of rookie series including the Fox single-camera comedy Ben and Kate, ABC's primetime soap Nashville and the Warner Bros. mystery drama 666 Park Avenue. Germany's ProSiebenSat.1 extended its package deal with CBS Studios International, which includes Elementary and returning hits like NCIS. Australia's Ten network still has output deals with CBS and Fox for their entire lineups. Internationally, Germany remains the largest TV market for U.S. product, with broadcasters in France and Australia also serving as major cash machines for the studios.
But the global dominance of American television series -- whisper it -- might be on the wane. A recent report from Eurodata TV Worldwide looking at 11 of the top international territories found that among the top-performing series during the 2010-11 season, only 13 percent were from the U.S., compared with 19 percent a year earlier. The American series still on top -- NCIS, Criminal Minds and the CSI franchise -- are getting a bit long in the tooth. CSI, entering its 13th season this fall, has been the most popular series internationally for several years. About 63 million viewers watched the Las Vegas-set crime series worldwide last year, but even that figure is down 15 percent from the nearly 74 million who tuned in back in 2009. Among newer dramas, only CBS' The Mentalist, launched by Warner Bros. in 2008, can claim to be a truly global hit.
On the comedy side, there have been several notable worldwide successes, particularly Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother. Two 2011 debutants, New Girl and 2 Broke Girls, also sold well internationally.
And Charlie Sheen's Anger Management has breakout potential: Its bow on Canada's CTV drew nearly 3 million viewers, which network programming and sports president Phil King called "a monster premiere." (Big Bang, Canada's top-rated show, draws about 1.9 million viewers.) King also hopes for a repeat of U.S. comedy success with NBC/20th TV's The New Normal, which CTV will pair with Anger Management in the fall.
Outside the English-speaking world, however, comedy tends to be a hard sell, especially after it has been translated and sometimes censored for local consumption.
Meanwhile, the rise of locally made dramas -- from ITV's Downton Abbey in Britain to Denmark's The Killing, from the Australian crime franchise Underbelly to Argentina's hit telenovelas -- continues to push U.S. series out of primetime. According to Eurodata, in four of the biggest international TV markets -- the U.K., Spain, Italy and Turkey -- there no longer is a single U.S. show among the 10 top-rated scripted series.
"If television was marked by the rise of U.S. series during the first 10 years of the 21st century, the second decade sees local shows taking back power in several countries," says Eurodata publishing director Lorene Nowicki.
The boom in U.S. drama dates to 2000 and the launch of CSI. It reached its peak at the 2004 L.A. Screenings, a showcase that featured Housewives, Lost, House and Grey's Anatomy. Those series set standards for visual style and small-screen storytelling and won over viewers worldwide.
The past five years, however, have seen the rise of U.S. cable channels including AMC and FX and their move into edgier, darker original fare a la Mad Men, Justified and The Walking Dead. Critics might lavish praise on these shows, but they often are too niche or violent for most international broadcasters.
"These are shows for the critics, but you can't get a network to buy them," says Jan Tibursky, who acquires for the German and Swiss TV markets. "Even The Following -- which is probably the best new show of the season, the only one that is really trying something new -- is just too violent for primetime [internationally]."
Being too edgy isn't a big issue in territories with strong pay TV markets, such as the U.K. and France. Britain's BSkyB is willing to pay a hefty premium to keep popular niche shows off free TV. It's estimated that Sky paid more than $500,000 an episode to snatch Glee from rival Channel 4 and signed a similarly inflated check to nab Mad Men from BBC4. And Sky still has three years to run on the five-year, $240 million deal it signed with HBO in 2010.
However, in territories with small or underdeveloped pay TV markets -- say, Germany -- a show's value depends on the audience and advertising it can draw. In that context, a series like CBS' Criminal Minds, where the good guys always win and with relatively little onscreen violence, is highly bankable. Showtime's bloodier, darker and open-ended Dexter? Much less so.
Another problem for the studios' international sales departments is the trend toward increasing serialization, with story arcs that extend across multiple episodes or seasons. International broadcasters prefer self-contained shows that wrap in 60 minutes -- they are easier to program and can be bumped up and down a schedule as ratings warrant.
TNT's The Closer spinoff Major Crimes and Fox's The Mob Doctor aren't likely to appear on any critic's best-of list, but they stand a good chance of getting picked up for the global market. In August, ABC Studios signed with British digital broadcaster UKTV for three new procedurals: the spinoff Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior, featuring Forest Whitaker; The Protector, which stars Ally Walker as a single mom and LAPD homicide detective; and the Eric McCormack starrer Perception.
As the ABC deal shows, U.S. series still are selling. Revenge, another ABC show, was Australia's No. 1 drama last season. Mentalist tops the ratings in France. And U.S. shows -- from NCIS and Hawaii Five-0 to The Office and The Good Wife -- continue to dominate Canadian primetime.
But the TV business is cyclical. U.S. series ruled the world during the 1980s, with such series as Dallas and The Cosby Show topping global ratings. By the mid-'90s, they were knocked out of primetime by cheaper, more popular local programming. American TV remains the gold standard, but if the new fall season is an indication, then the pendulum has begun to swing the other way.
Pip Bulbeck in Sydney, Etan Vlessing in Toronto and Stuart Kemp in London contributed to this report.