Love American style: only hits need apply


American television still rules in foreign markets. Hollywood's most popular TV shows always seem to have a home right alongside the best of the local productions in virtually every market. Revenues from foreign TV sales are blooming, with more than $1 million per episode for blue chip shows being the norm in such bigger territories as the U.K., Australia and Germany. License fees of $1.5 million per episode are being reported by some. The reason's simple -- grade A product, according to Twentieth Century Fox Television president Gary Newman.

Fox, like all the studios, is enjoying its fair share of foreign success, particularly with "24" and "The Simpsons." And newer drama "Prison Break" has been raising considerable buyer interest and proven a big hit for M6 in France.

But the foreign markets are no longer the easy touch they once were. These days, it's only the breakout shows that are making the grade with viewers.

Hollywood realizes that the days are long gone when the studios could drive up to foreign broadcasters' back doors with a dump truck of TV series and movies as part a hundred million dollar output deal. The foreign broadcasters are no longer so desperate for programming that they are willing to buy anything a studio has to offer.

But they still want our hits, Newman points out.

"The international market has become very hit driven. If you have a show that resonates with the buyers such as 'Prison Break' or '24,' you are going to exceed a 50/50 split on revenues (50% of the show's revenues coming from foreign)," he says. "On the other hand, if you have a show that just doesn't connect or feels too American or isn't universal or relatable, you may be getting a third of the money or even less."

Knowing this, are the studios making more of an effort these days to develop programming that has a good chance from the getgo of appealing to viewers overseas?

"The international markets are very important, particularly with dramas. The sales of these shows internationally frequently make the difference between a show working on financial scale versus not working," Newman says. "I think if you compare what goes on now to what was going on five to ten years ago it's quite different, not so much that we are looking for input from our international division or overseas buyers creatively, but as we conceptualize a show we are doing it with an eye to what works internationally."

He stresses: "We do consult with international to give them a heads up to what we are pitching to see if there any concerns about content or thoughts that can be helpful as we sit with our writers during the development process. And we do think about casting choices that may impact the show's chances internationally."

Newman says he finds that action and suspense tend to work best for the international broadcasters, though he does point to the trend now toward comedic hours making for hits overseas, including such domestic break outs as "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy." He recognizes, of course, that "Anatomy" is not comedy strictly speaking, but it does have a vein of humor rippling through it.

But defining storylines that are likely to hit internationally is really more a matter for the crystal ball gazers.

"It's really such a difficult question because ultimately buyers are looking for quality TV and the international buyers have become incredibly sophisticated programmers," Newman adds.