HBO joins the fray for int'l buyers

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A company that determinedly zigs while others zag is following the lead of the six Hollywood majors this week, screening a trio of new series for foreign TV program buyers.

HBO unveiled three of its upcoming shows — the dramedies "Hung," "Bored to Death" and "How to Make It in America" — to potential buyers beginning Sunday at its Santa Monica offices, and it aims to conclude some licensing deals by week's end.

"Our shows tend to be more adventuresome than the broadcast networks' primetime schedules, and they don't all premiere at once in the fall, but we decided to take advantage of so many buyers being here anyway," HBO Enterprises president Charles Schreger said. It's the first time the Time Warner-owned pay cabler has screened for buyers during the weeklong viewing marathon.

About 1,300 foreign buyers are spending the week in Hollywood to assess, and in some cases immediately ink deals for, new U.S. series for the fall TV schedule.

American movies used to be the big draw for foreign TV buyers, but during the past decade, U.S. TV series have become must-haves.

"I think we have the best business card in the world," Schreger said, referring to the fact that his Enterprises division licenses almost exclusively the company's series and does not package them with feature films.

Schreger said another selling point for HBO product internationally is that it consistently offers "low volume but high quality," though he admitted the cabler's output generally appeals to upscale pay and free outlets rather than mainstream commercial broadcasters. He also said HBO benefits from "a long history of reordering our own shows. We don't typically cancel shows midway through a season." (The axing of network shows stateside midway through their seasons is a frustrating problem for buyers abroad who have acquired series that strike out in the ratings.)

Two buyers from different territories who saw HBO's product Sunday said the new shows seemed "potentially funny and offbeat," though not that different from what the broadcast networks are offering. That could be interpreted as a good thing — or not — because such difficult, cult material as HBO's "The Sopranos," "Six Feet Under" and "The Wire" tends to be highly niche, selling abroad for considerably less per episode than shows perceived as more mainstream fare.

License fees per episode on recent HBO shows, Schreger said, are holding up "fairly well" despite the global economy.

"We did pretty well internationally with 'True Blood' and even with 'The Wire,' " he said, though prices for those shows aren't on the "CSI" or "Desperate Housewives" level.

As for "In Treatment," the cerebral show has managed to rack up sales almost everywhere — except, surprisingly, in the U.K.

Most earlier HBO product, including "Sopranos" and "Entourage," was licensed abroad for years by sibling company Warner Bros., but HBO took over its own distribution three years ago.

Schreger and his team have established output deals in several territories — with France Telecom in Gaul, Showtime in Australia and Canal Plus in Scandinavia — with several key deals expected to close by week's end. (partialdiff)
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