European TV Enjoys 'Halcyon' Days as Homegrown Shows Push U.S. Series Out of Primetime

The Halcyon - Still 1 -H 2016
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Television

The days of U.S. comedies, dramas and procedurals dominating the schedule are gone.

The days of U.S. series dominating European primetime are long gone.

U.S. mainstream comedies, dramas and procedurals — think The Big Bang Theory, Grey's Anatomy or NCIS — still play on the channels across the continent, but few of the big European networks rely on U.S. shows to drive, or keep, their viewers. Instead, local productions — be they British talk shows, German crime dramas or Spanish-language soaps — are the anchor programs for national networks now. And in the few primetime slots that remain, imported drama from Europe, not America — is gaining ground.

At MIPCOM, the international TV market that wrapped in Cannes last week, buyers were gaga for The Halcyon, the new period drama from Sony Pictures Television's Left Bank Pictures and ITV. Set at a London luxury hotel during WWII, the show is being billed as the next Downton Abbey, the British costume romp that was a primetime hit across Europe.

"The moment I saw Halcyon, it went to the top of my must-have list,” a buyer for a major European public broadcaster commented. “None of the U.S. shows I saw have that kind of potential for our audience.”

Another continental MIPCOM hit was The Same Sky, a Cold War spy drama from Germany, which also premiered at the market and was snatched up in most of Europe, including by Italy's Rai, France 3, SVT in Sweden, Denmark's DR, NRK in Norway and Finland's YLE. Netflix picked up the series, created by British writer Paula Milne (The Virgin Queen) and directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall) for several countries, including all English-speaking territories.

“We're finding European drama is performing better than the American stuff,” says Stephen Mowbray, head of program acquisition for Sweden's SVT. “A British show like [BBC drama] Doctor Foster did very well for us, growing audience share week by week, which is very unusual.” U.S. studios, Mowbray says, still expect “premium prices” for their TV series, but the American series “are no longer delivering premium ratings. Eventually, something is going to have to give.”

Many European networks are still locked into so-called output or volume deals with U.S. studios, agreements that require the networks to buy up a certain number of new series every year. But as fewer American shows land with European viewers, many of Europe's biggest networks are reassessing these studio agreements.

"There does seem to be a trend for some European free-to-air broadcasters to be more selective about which studio deals they renew," says Paul Dempsey, president of global markets at BBC Worldwide. "This has freed up space in the schedules for [European] distributors like us to exploit."

Even in the U.K., where audiences have traditionally balked at non-English foreign imports, attitudes are changing. The success of subtitled series The Killing (Denmark) and Deutschland 83 (Germany) has opened up a market for Euro drama on British primetime.

These shows "have revolutionized viewers’ attitudes to foreign dramas, both in the U.K. and globally,” says Walter Iuzzolino, a London-based Italian television executive who curates Walter Presents, an online streaming service from Britain's Channel 4 that specializes in imported drama. "Subtitled content, once associated with niche, art house fare, has suddenly broken into the mainstream – drawing sizable audiences by terrestrial standards and proving that, when it comes to great storytelling and superb production values, language is no longer a barrier to global success."

With audiences' taste in drama converging across the continent, European networks have begun to cooperate on shows, sharing costs via co-productions in which two or more networks pay a portion of a series' budget in exchange for local rights. Examples at MIPCOM included Ransom, a crime procedural about a hostage negotiation team, which Germany's RTL and France's TF1 are producing, together with the Corus network in Canada, and The Young Pope, a papal drama starring Jude Law that's a result of a collaboration between France's Canal Plus and pan-European pay TV group Sky. Both shows have U.S. minority partners: CBS in the case of Ransom and HBO for Young Pope.

"Budget-wise, Ransom is right in the middle: more expensive for us than licensing a U.S. show and cheaper than producing something all on our own," says Jorg Graf, head of fiction for RTL. "But we think it will be a better fit for our audience than a lot of the U.S. series out there."

Several European networks complain of a dearth of procedurals. The case-a-week style cop shows used to be a mainstay of the U.S. networks, but have become rarer as shows such as C.S.I., Castle, Bones and The Mentalist — all huge international hits — ended their runs, with few obvious successors in the wings.

"As the U.S. networks are [focusing on] shows that are edgy, more serialized, we are seeing less of the high-end procedural product that European broadcasters want,” says Stuart Baxter, president of eOne Television International, which had no problem finding international buyers for Conviction, an independently-produced legal procedural starring Haley Atwell, which airs on ABC in the U.S.

It's notable that many of the drama series being developed in Europe — other examples include Take Two and Crossing Lines from France's Studiocanal — are targeting this procedural gap, delivering the kind of shows the U.S. used to produce en masse.

And CBS, one of the few U.S. networks still dedicated to the procedural model, found plenty of buyers at MIPCOM for its two new network shows: MacGyver and Bull, both case-a-week procedurals.

“There's still a market for U.S. shows in Europe, but it's become more competitive,” says Baxter. “Broadcasters are shifting more of their budgets to local productions or to acquisitions from elsewhere in Europe. If you've got the one of the top 10 best shows out there, you shouldn't have a problem. If your show is just average, you're going to struggle."

Alex Ritman in London contributed to this report.