L.A. Screenings Preview: TV Niche Viewing Goes Global

" 'CSI' opened doors for more American content ... around the world" — and now, as the annual event kicks off, serialized programming, especially via streaming, dominates the distribution landscape.

This story first appeared in the May 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

In March, an episode of CBS-distributed series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation was simulcast in 171 countries, breaking the record for a television drama set by the BBC's Dr. Who in 2013, when one of its installments was seen in 98 countries.

It symbolizes a significant shift in global TV viewing from a largely regional approach in past years to wider acceptance of American shows on a nearly global basis. CSI, says Armando Nunez, president and CEO of CBS Global Distribution Group, "opened doors for more American content in primetime on the bigger networks around the world."

As some 1,500 international buyers come to Southern California to sample TV's annual buffet of new shows — a marketplace dubbed the L.A. Screenings — that evolution has continued, boosted by new TV channels and platforms offering more ways American shows of all kinds can be seen worldwide. "We've had a proliferation in the number of channels," adds Nunez, "as more satellite broadcasters, cable systems and more recently digital platforms — both stand-alone and extensions of traditional platforms — have created more shelf space for content."

American shows had been seen widely in past years, most notably Dallas, Dynasty and Murder, She Wrote in the 1980s and more recently Law & Order. But the small number of channels around the world offered only limited opportunities. That has changed thanks to technology boosts in most of the world, though there are still many conservative countries where strong cultural traditions have made it difficult to sell shows that are edgy, sexy or touch on the supernatural.

One smash hit, AMC's The Walking Dead, has been successful in many big markets but has been shut out in others. "There are some areas where culturally, zombies are difficult," says Stuart Baxter, president of eOne Television International. "The Middle East seems to be one of those, and it doesn't work terribly well in India."

India's main channels are still largely filled with locally produced programming in Hindi and English. But since the 1990s, satellite services that offer a wider menu to increasingly sophisticated viewers have proliferated.

"The CSI's and Hawaii Five-0's that appeal to a very broad audience work well in primetime on big, free TV stations," says Baxter. "What's changed is beneath that, there is now a big layer of digital channels, smaller niche channels, pay TV or local equivalents of Netflix that focus more on cable shows. There are a lot more places for slightly edgier, slightly darker, very much more serialized shows."

When there were fewer channels, the mandate was for stand-alone shows that can be watched at any time, in any order. The development of the new platforms has created a taste for serial dramas globally, just as it has in the U.S.

"You have this recent phenomena of the success of highly stylized serial shows such as Mad Men," says Peter Iacono, Lionsgate's managing director of international television. "The first season was a really tough sell. The world was not receptive at first to the serialized shows. The world has since changed a bit.

"There is still a hunger for stand-alone shows, but there are more networks. Now you have to figure out why someone tunes in and what keeps them hooked. The stand-alones are like a snack, where a serialized drama is a meal. You have to sit and eat the courses, so it has to stay in sequence."

Opportunities have grown, but challenges remain. When Lionsgate first offered the ABC drama Nashville outside the U.S., the reaction was, recalls Iacono, "Who's going to watch a show about country music?" In Latin America, they overcame that by marketing Nashville as a telenovela, in which the music became a secondary selling point.

In Europe, however, the show was a hard sell. So in France, after local broadcasters turned it down, Nashville was offered first on iTunes' "Hot From the USA" service. When French viewers responded, Lionsgate had a new pitch. "You could demonstrate to broadcasters in France that people are buying the show," recalls Iacono. "After that success, we had a linear channel partner by season two."

The key becomes finding the right home for each show, where it will be properly marketed and there are realistic expectations about how many viewers it can attract. "The good news," says Nunez, "is there's a pipe for almost all kinds of content all over the world. There are more ways to slice up the distribution pie than ever before."

Nyay Bhushan in India, Nick Holdsworth in Russia, John Hecht in Mexico and Scott Roxborough in Germany contributed to this report.