Canceling reservations


Almost everywhere you turn, there's someone touting the latest golden age of television -- you know, the continued creative resurgence that's drawing A-list talent from cinema to the small screen and giving audiences an unprecedented array of top-notch programming to choose from?

It would follow, then, that the international broadcasters heading to the L.A. Screenings -- which run through Friday -- would be giddy with shopper's delight, scrambling to decide which great series to snap up -- even with some license fees for American dramas going for up to $1.5 million for the hottest international markets.

But, not so, insiders say.

International execs report that they were seriously burned last year by the networks' decisions to cancel what had been touted as "next big things." When those series -- ABC's "The Nine," CBS' "3 lbs" and "Smith," Fox's "Vanished" and "Standoff" and NBC's "Kidnapped" and "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," among others -- tanked, they took with them some of the buoyancy that had infected the worldwide market.

Almost overnight, the overarching philosophy seems to have become, quite simply, "Buyer beware."

"As a European buyer, we put a lot of eggs in with the studios, and very few of them hatched," says Michael Murphy, founder and programming director of Ireland's Channel 6, which has a strong lineup of U.S. product. "Some years, you may have two or three or even four shows coming through, but this year most people ended up with one if they were lucky. So, I think there will be a little bit more caution this year in terms of people actually competing for shows."

Like other buyers, Murphy stresses that he has been very satisfied with the quality of programming coming from the studios in the past few seasons. "It's not a qualitative issue," he says. "You can pick the best show at the (L.A.) Screenings, but if it gets a weak slot or something happens at the network, it's gone. What we would seriously ask is that the networks start to give shows more time and maybe a bit more care in their scheduling."

"It's an issue among our buyers," adds John McMahon, president and managing director of European operations for Sony Pictures Television International. "There's always the gamble for them, whether to commit early to a show that might not finish a season or to wait and risk someone else coming in and stealing it from them. For the real top shows, the buyers will still be snatching them up right out of the screenings. If the series is just interesting, they'll probably sit back and wait to see how it performs and if they can get a full season delivered."

Most broadcasters say they understand the competitive nature and economic forces that impact the fate of primetime network shows in the U.S. But when a series is canceled stateside, it has ramifications for broadcasters around the globe.

"We're dependent on the number of episodes produced in the U.S.," says Alejandro Florez, head of programming acquired product at Spain's Telecinco, which was experiencing great success with NBC's 2004 series "LAX" before it was canceled. "When series are canceled, the producer stops working on it, and thus there is no continuity. We've had shows that worked very well for us, but then we couldn't offer continuity because they'd failed in the U.S."

Marion Edwards, president of international TV distribution at 20th Century Fox Television Distribution, agrees there's a "chill in the air" but argues that buyers might be seeing things as a little more grim than they really are.

"We are doing research into this," Edwards says. "I don't think you are going to see (that) a greater number of shows were canceled than ever before in the history of TV. The problem is that with so many new shows, it seems like more of them are being canceled per network. I do think that people spent more on these shows than before. If you look at the U.K. in particular, they really pulled out their wallets. So, the sting of losing something that you invested heavily in is that much more painful."

Edwards adds that the great track record of top U.S. hits over the past few years has been a boon for many buyers, who retain a certain "air of optimism" that they might strike gold with major series -- such as ABC's "Dirty Sexy Money" and "Cashmere Mafia," CBS' "Cane," the CW's "Gossip Girl" and NBC's "Journeyman" and "Lipstick Jungle" -- debuting at the L.A. Screenings.

Besides, adds Armando Nunez Jr., president of CBS Paramount International Television, cancellations are "part of the process." "It's a market that is very competitive, and if you want to risk not jumping in (to bid on a show), you run the risk that somebody else will, and it will become a hit," he says.

Veteran programming acquisitions executive for Australia's Nine Network, Andrea Keir is based in Los Angeles and tracks pilots and network projects long before they even go into production. She says that buyers might be frustrated by the number of cancellations -- but they do understand the process.

"The development process is hard and getting harder," Keir says. "It's getting tougher to attract a sufficient volume of audience to sustain these programs. We know that Australians love American product, but you have to make sure that you have sufficient local program development going on to complement your schedule when you end up with very little surviving from the American market."

Beverley McGarvey, head of programming at Australia's Network Ten points to another issue that comes with early cancellations: More and more broadcasters are looking to air day-and-date with the U.S.

"It could be an issue if we decide to run day-and-date with more programming like we did last year with (CBS') 'Jericho,'" she says. "We want to do more of that this year, but it has to be the right sort of show, the right product and the right time slot."

Many broadcasters are looking to broadcast as close to the U.S. airdates as possible in order to combat illegal computer downloads of episodes -- particularly of serialized shows.
Internationally, Canadians are the only broadcasters to play the simulcast game across the board, scheduling U.S. network shows in the same primetime slot they hold south of the border. But Barbara Williams, senior vp programming and production for CanWest MediaWorks, which operates two national networks in the country, says piggybacking on network schedules has its downside when U.S. shows fail and need to be replaced.

"With (simulcasting) comes the challenge of following the dance of the Americans, and they are shuffling their schedules more and more, making the chase game a growing challenge," Williams says.

CanWest MediaWorks found success with a host of U.S. shows this season including CBS' "Shark" and ABC's "Brothers & Sisters," but it had to scramble when other rookie dramas went down, including "Kidnapped" and "Vanished."

To fill the holes in the primetime schedule that cancellations create, CanWest MediaWorks first airs the same replacement programming as the network, but if the material isn't a good fit or a rival Canadian broadcaster already owns the rights, Williams goes to her bench for replacements.

Getting warning that a U.S. show will be canceled is difficult, Williams adds, when networks play their cards close to the vest to ensure their U.S. rivals don't catch word before any official announcements.

Susanne Boyce, chair of CTV Media Group and president of programming at Canada's CTV, says that Canadian broadcasters have become as accustomed to new U.S. net-
work shows failing as driving their primetime schedules.

"Things can go in a nanosecond," she says.

Richard Wolfe, director of programming at Sky One, however, says that the whole issue of cancellations isn't quite as dramatic as some might indicate. "There are a lot of risks -- whether a network will give a show enough time to grow, what it will air against," Woolfe says. "When you sit in a swanky screening room in L.A., it can be a bit like gambling. A lot is about instinct -- the moment we start controlling our gut feelings, we will end up with very boring schedules.

"For the right show, there will be a feeding frenzy and a bidding war, and anyone who says there isn't is not being honest," Woolfe adds. "The more pedestrian product, though, will be easier to pass on."

-- Pip Bulbeck in Australia, Pamela Rolfe in Spain, Scott Roxborough in Germany and Mimi Turner in the U.K. contributed to this report.
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