'Boardwalk Empire' hot at L.A. Screenings

'Hawaii Five-O,' 'Undercovers,' 'Off the Map' also popular

HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," a Prohibition-era period piece for which Martin Scorsese directed the pilot, is one of the hot titles to come out of the just-wrapped L.A. Screenings, the annual bazaar in which foreign TV program buyers pick and choose from among new U.S. shows for their stations abroad.

Other titles cited by a random survey of a dozen buyers who sat through the marathon screenings this past week were CBS Studios' "Hawaii Five-O" revamp, Warner Bros.' sexy spy caper "Undercovers," Disney's jungle-set medical drama "Off the Map" and Fox's politically incorrect sitcom "Bob's Burgers."

In some cases, buyers cited the shows they have to take anyway because they have output deals with the relevant major studio; in others, buyers fingered shows they wished they had dibs on but which go to a rival.

Among the licensing deals inked during the weeklong event for "Empire" were various free and pay window operators in key territories France (to Orange for pay, Paris Premiere for free) and Spain (Sogecable for pay) as well as others in Canada, Scandinavia, the Middle East and Africa.

Admittedly, some takers are output-deal clients, but others snapped up the series on the open market, including Paris Premiere, Sky in New Zealand, SBS in Australia, Histoire in Quebec and Lumiere in Cyprus.

Still, despite deals here and there, no one seemed head over heels for what they saw during their Los Angeles sojourn.

"I'd say overall, the studios played it safe," said Ben Frow, director of programs at Ireland's TV3 and TV3e. "There was no 'Glee' or 'Modern Family' -- nothing terrible, but nothing ground-breaking, either. Instead, there were so many cop shows they all started to look alike."

Crow said he was glad to no longer have output deals with a Hollywood studio.

"I'd rather pay more for less if that's what ends up happening with what's left on the open market," he said. "Too many of the series we had through output deals simply got canceled stateside, and we had to run them off in the middle of the night."

Although most of the focus during the Screenings is on the six Hollywood majors -- they represent almost all new primetime series on the five U.S. broadcast networks -- several indie distributors can make a dent with offbeat, provocative or outstanding content.

Scandinavia-based program buyer John Ranelagh termed "Empire" "the standout this go-round" even though his station, Norway's TV2, isn't forking out for the latest HBO drama series because it goes in an output deal to one of his competitors.

HBO Enterprises president Charles Schreger said that "Empire" went over "extremely well" with buyers and that, unlike more narrow-appeal cult series produced and distributed by the pay cable network (think "The Sopranos" and "Entourage"), this one, which stars Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt and William Hill, is selling not only to pay operators abroad but also to more mainstream over-the-air broadcasters.

"It has commercial legs," Schreger said. He expects more deals to be inked within days in other key territories including Germany, Italy, Russia and Japan.

As a general rule, cult fare doesn't rake in the top license fees broader-based commercial titles do, but if and when bidding wars break out, prices tend to rise. Some stations overseas also relish the idea of buying something that reflects their upmarket, elite bona fides, even if it costs more than its eventual ratings might warrant.

The average price nowadays a U.S. drama series brings in to a U.S. supplier is $500,000-$750,000 an episode, though American sellers are rigorously closed-mouthed about confirming specific revenue for each show.

As for notoriously picky British program buyers, who eschew output deals with Hollywood suppliers and instead cherry-pick, Schreger said a deal will be done there as well. "Sopranos" aired on Channel 4 in the U.K., and other HBO shows have appeared on BBC 2, including, more recently, the World War II docuseries "The Pacific," which went to Rupert Murdoch's satcaster Sky in the U.K., so it's hard to predict where "Empire" might end up in that country.

Major suppliers did stress that foreign buyers seem more open with their wallets, especially since a few of the top U.S. performers abroad -- "Lost" and "24," for example -- have ended their runs, leaving gaping holes in foreign schedules. Plus, TV advertising markets overseas generally are beginning to come back.

Still, buyers said that it does not appear to be a banner year for U.S. program development.

"Production values are excellent, but some of the subject matter -- bigamy, cancer, dementia -- isn't exactly what our audiences want right now," said one buyer, who said he couldn't be named because he has to maintain "decent ongoing relationships with all these sellers."

For his part, Ranelagh noted that certain of the upcoming series scheduled for the fall could be "problematic" for their long-term success. He said, for example, that Warners (which accounts for one-third of the primetime lineup across U.S. networks) could be "a victim of its own success" in that several of its new series will be "competing against other of its own shows on different networks."

The noticeable "sexiness" of some of the series, other European buyers said, was "not a problem in our territories," pointing in particular to a couple of Warners productions as being "definite eye-candy." (Like most of its competitors, the Hollywood major has ongoing output deals in most territories but was not ready during the holiday weekend to announce deals for any of its shows with potential British buyers.)

On the plus side, another buyer said she was pleased to see Sony back in the selling mix; the studio is fielding three new shows, of which one, Showtime's "The Big C," starring Laura Linney, got thumbs up from several buyers. She also said that NBC International TV seems in "better shape" this year with shows to sell like actioner "The Event."

And then there's nonscripted fare.

Indie distributor Chris Grant, president of Shine International, said that "people are definitely in the market for formats," and pointed to "tremendous success" this past week with deals for shows like "MasterChef," which premieres next month on Fox. Grant and company closed agreements for finished tapes of the cooking show as well as the drug-rehab series "Addicted" to Turner Latin America and of "Losing it With Jillian" to Discovery Latin America.

As an indie, Grant said he had to maneuver around the all-day screening sessions at the studios, seeing clients for dinners and breakfasts. Still, he said that "dramas are still quite expensive to buy, and hence nonscripted originals and formats are a welcome alternative for many buyers."

Because foreign buyers are parting with big bucks when they acquire U.S. shows, they are increasingly taking their time when settling on their final picks.

Fox International TV president Marion Edwards, who is fielding 14 new series between broadcast and cable schedules, noted that foreign buyers now can review U.S. pilots online.

"In many territories, certainly Britain, the buyers increasingly go home and rescreen what they've seen for a larger constituency at their station," she said.

That's why, Edwards said, so many deals don't get wrapped during the Screenings.

"These are major commitments, and just as networks here elicit a lot of opinions before they commit to pilots, so too do overseas buyers before they sign on the dotted line for American shows."