LA Screenings: The New Boom for U.S. TV in Foreign Markets

Warner Bros Backlot - H 2013

Warner Bros Backlot - H 2013

The explosion of digital, online and streaming outlets has reinvigorated licensing American programming abroad.

This story first appeared in the May 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

More than 1,500 program buyers from around the world are expected for the annual LA Screenings, where beginning May 14 they'll shop among the new season's network and cable fare for their diverse international audiences.

Attendance is in line with recent years, but there's a significant shift in the types of companies that make the pilgrimage to Southern California to license foreign rights to shows from Disney, Sony, NBCUniversal, Warner Bros., Fox, MGM, Lionsgate and others.

Major foreign broadcast networks, which once stocked up heavily on American comedies and dramas, now buy fewer programs for their primetime schedules. With more investment in local shows, U.S. product often is pushed to afternoons or other fringe dayparts in Europe, Asia and Latin America. However, offsetting the decline in sales to foreign broadcasters is a surge in the number and range of new-media players.

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"The number of shows that air in primetime has dwindled on these [foreign] networks," says Marion Edwards, president of international television at Fox. She attributes the shift during the past decade to growth in local production thanks to improved economies and the 2007-08 Writers Guild of America strike. "For about a year we didn't supply much of anything, and all the space filled up," recalls Edwards.

The digital and web outlets that have emerged during the same period might not pay as much, but there are a lot of them. "What has been the salvation of our business and what remains incredibly important is the broad launch of digital terrestrial channels, basic cable channels and streaming services," says Edwards. "If we just had the same networks to do business with, we would not be in business."

The highest-quality American series -- especially dramas -- continue to appeal to foreign broadcasters, but buyers are more selective. "The stakes are high, and the competition is fierce," says Keith Le Goy, president of distribution at Sony Pictures Television International. "Viewers have more choice in the cable and satellite universe, and you've got the arrival of people like Netflix and LoveFilm. The battle for viewers' time and attention has never been fiercer."

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Buyers also have more content choices than ever before. NBCU, for instance, has 20 separate producing units making shows not only for the network but also for Bravo, USA and its other cable outlets. "Cable has become ever more interesting for broadcasters," says Don McGregor, executive vp and sales liaison at NBCUniversal International Television Distribution. Notes Le Goy: "The fact is, if you have a great show, it doesn't matter if it is on AMC or ABC. It's still going to find great demand as long as you have great characters, great actors, great directors, great writers and you produce something amazing."

A business also has developed in remaking American shows to better suit local sensibilities. Ben Pyne, president of global distribution at Disney Media Networks, cites as an example Turkey, where Disney sold Desperate Housewives and, more recently, Revenge. Both dramas aired in their original form there but also were remade into slightly altered local versions. "Not only did Housewives work in Turkey, but there was also a sort of diaspora, and the Turkish version sold to other countries in the area -- which meant we made incremental funds," says Pyne.

Global demand for U.S. programming remains strong -- one just might not find it as often in foreign network primetime. "The range of opportunities for all shows has expanded considerably because of the new channels and platforms," says Le Goy. "I think that's to everyone's benefit."