How the Rise of Local TV Programming in Europe Could Threaten U.S. Studio Deals

Peter Kramer/NBC
New U.S. series, like 'Shades of Blue' with Jennifer Lopez, failed to land with European viewers.

Leading European TV company RTL Group says the success of homegrown content and the rise in “niche shows” out of the U.S. make American imports less attractive.

Arguably, American TV — U.S.-made dramas and comedies — and feature films built the commercial television business in Europe. But across the continent, U.S. series are losing ground on the big European networks, with fewer primetime slots for American programming and local content on the rise.

This was put in sharp relief on Thursday at the annual press conference for European TV giant RTL Group, which operates 59 television channels in 10 European countries. On flagship network RTL in Germany, a channel once famous for carrying U.S. series such as House, Bones or the CSI franchise, fully 90 percent of programming in 2016 was produced in-house, with only 10 percent acquired from the U.S.

RTL Group co-CEO Anke Schaferkordt said the company is looking to further reduce slots for U.S. shows in favor of homegrown programming, both nonfiction (local versions of reality shows I'm a Celebrity: Get Me Out of Here! and Dragon's Den are huge hits) and German-language fiction.

A recent RTL-backed film about dueling German sneaker moguls the Dassler brothers, founders of Adidas and Puma, was a ratings smash, drawing 4.96 million viewers. In contrast, big U.S. shows, such as Jennifer Lopez starrer Shades of Blue, which RTL picked up from NBCUniversal, have underperformed, drawing fewer than 1.5 million viewers.

“We are seeing that American series have become more niche and thus less attractive for our big free-to-air networks,” said Schaferkordt, adding that there was also more competition for U.S. drama from digital channels and streaming platforms, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. “Viewers, particularly younger viewers, are more likely to watch U.S. series on a digital platform or online."

While RTL “will continue to buy U.S. series,” the exec said the group is shifting its focus, and its budget, from acquisitions to local-language programming, in Germany and across its European footprint. Currently, RTL in Germany has output deals with both Sony and NBCUniversal (the latter a split licensing deal with German public broadcaster ZDF). Schaferkordt said the bulk of the shows delivered through these deals now go to RTL's digital and online platforms, which target smaller audience demographics. “In the mid-term, we'll see a shift where we'll have to renegotiate these agreements,” she said.

RTL also is experimenting with producing its own U.S. series. Together with NBCUniversal and French network TF1, RTL has greenlighted the first 12-episode season of Gone, a crime procedural starring Chris Noth. RTL, TF1 and NBCUniversal International Studios will each contribute a third of the financing for the project, which will be written and shot entirely in English. The series is set to launch in late 2017 or early 2018.