How Fall's "Patriotic TV" May Lose the Global War for Viewers

Patriotic TV_Illo - THR - H 2017
Illustration by: Leo Espinosa

American series, already slumping overseas, face a backlash over a glut of military themes for Trump voters. Says one buyer: "Nationalistic shows are really hard for us to place."

The biggest trend of the fall television season is a move toward what could be called "Patriotic TV." Shows like CBS' SEAL Team, NBC's The Brave and The CW's Valor focus on the U.S. military or the heartland, a move seen by some as an attempt by broadcast networks to appeal to Trump's army of supporters.

But the shift in focus is threatening one of the most lucrative aspects of the American TV business: international sales. And the risky move comes at a time when U.S. programming is facing more challenges from home-grown product around the world. International buyers who watched pilots of the new series at the L.A. Screenings in May tell The Hollywood Reporter they worry how their viewers back home would react to them.

"These shows are all really well made and the production values are great, but some of it is pretty jingoistic: lots of breast-beating and flag-flying," says Stephen Mowbray, head of acquisitions for Swedish public broadcaster SVT. The backlash isn't related to Trump per se, but rather to the rah-rah American tone that military series can showcase — and the perception that more of these shows are coming under Trump. "Really patriotic, nationalistic shows are really hard for us to place," agrees Silke Regier, an acquisitions executive with leading German network RTL.

Why does this matter? Global sales make up an increasingly large part of a TV studio's bottom line. International content licensing revenue at CBS, for instance, soared to $1.5 billion in 2015, up from $500 million a decade earlier. The bedrock of the global business traditionally has been European free TV networks, channels like RTL and Sat.1 in Germany, RAI in Italy and TF1 in France. But that's where American series now are having the toughest time. Two of the biggest network shows of the past few years — Empire and This Is Us — have bombed everywhere outside North America.

"Things built around very local American topics — like the way the U.S. sees race — is very different than in Europe," says Diego Londono, COO of Fox Networks Group for Europe & Africa. As a signal to the international market, NBC changed the name of its covert ops series from the more culturally loaded For God and Country to The Brave. "We've been very careful to position this show for our international buyers not as a U.S. military show but as an international action show," says Don McGregor, executive vp and sales liaison for NBCUniversal International Distribution. "We want to keep politics out of it."

But even without politics, the American TV brand, once a guarantee of sales and global viewers, appears a bit tarnished. Primetime schedules across Europe these days are dominated by locally made shows: Broadchurch or Happy Valley in the U.K., The Bridge in Sweden, mafia drama Gomorrah in Italy. And the U.S. series on the air aren't delivering the numbers they once did. As a result, Rudiger Boss of Germany's ProSiebenSat.1 channel group says he'll dial back the number of shows he buys from the U.S. And he isn't alone: Output deals — where an international channel agrees to buy all or most of the series a U.S. studio produces — are quickly becoming a thing of the past.

It's a tough dilemma for U.S. creators, who face an increasingly tough task in courting viewers in a fractured market of 500 series. Benjamin Cavell and Ed Redlich, creators of SEAL Team — which stars David Boreanaz as a hard-nosed leader of an elite military unit — argue that their "responsibility is to be faithful to the lives of the real people [in the SEAL team] who do this job," says Cavell. "We have absolutely no interest in being this crazy jingoistic show, and we hope it plays this way."

Of course, the biggest indicator of success overseas remains whether a show is serialized or procedural. European viewers, at least on network channels, don't go for complicated, long-arc storytelling, preferring the comfort food of case-of-the-week series like USA's Suits, Fox's Lethal Weapon and CBS' MacGyver reboot, which continue to sell and perform globally. CBS' military procedural NCIS remains the most watched show in the world — some 47 million viewers in 200 territories — proof that foreigners are happy to root for Americans, as long as they go light on patriotism and offer a neat narrative.

"I don't think international viewers are anti-American, but they are escapist," says Boss. "That might be why This Is Us didn't work. It's a great show, but it's got a slower pace, with more complex storytelling. It takes more commitment than a MacGyver or a Lethal Weapon."

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.