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American dramas have become such a key element of the dog-eat-dog ratings war in Australia that the networks there are looking to broadcast imported programs as close to the U.S. dates as possible.

But that's not going to be as easy as it sounds, says Andrea Keir, Network Nine's Los Angeles-based president of programming and acquisitions.

"You need to grab these shows really quickly," she says. "The exposure they now have with downloading on the Internet means that the Australian networks — and networks all over the world, really — have to go as close to day-and-date broadcasts with the U.S. as possible.

"But that will be a challenge because our seasons are so different," she says. "I mean different literally, when the U.S. is having its fall, we are heading into summer. I think that point is highlighted by the fact that our official broadcast season begins this Sunday."

It's Keir's job to snap up U.S. hits for her network before the competition does. She snagged "Weeds" from Lionsgate and even set up an output deal with the indie. She also acquired "Rome" and "Tsunami: The Aftermath" from HBO. Her network has output deals with Warner Bros. and Sony as well as a deal with Alliance Atlantis that secured the "CSI" franchise.

"My mission is to complement that product. I'm always searching for those gems such as 'Weeds,' " she adds.

The sheer weight of U.S. programming in the Australian schedules is because the dramas today are of such high quality, she says. "I think nowadays producers in the U.S. look to how their shows are going to sell internationally because as costs escalate they need to ensure that a show is going to sell globally.

"Every year we attend the Los Angeles Screenings (when all the new studio shows are screened for the overseas buyers), and in the last couple of years we have all said that all the studios are amping it up. They are producing material that is beautiful to watch. They are like mini movies.

"The best of these are generating buzz in Australia and also among broadcasters everywhere because they are really global product," she says. "That's part of the reason why it's really important for us to get as close to the U.S. broadcast as possible."

That said, Keir is careful to point out that Australians still want to watch local shows when they are well produced, written and cast. One of the big new local dramas that Nine has invested in is the coastal action show "Sea Patrol," now in production. But she adds that any local show has to compete with "the best of the best" from the U.S. and other markets.
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