Studio cuts create new deal dynamic

Some buyers worry cost-cutting could affect series quality

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They came, they saw, and they were opinionated.

More to the point, they came with wallets: It's just a question of how heated the bidding by foreign TV program buyers will get for the U.S. shows they really want -- and how they will react to the down-shifted economics of the U.S. TV industry.

"Overall, the Hollywood studios are producing more and more for their own networks (CBS, notably so), and there is a worry among us foreign buyers that cost-cutting -- albeit not so apparent in the pilots we saw -- will be apparent in the production of series: two writers for a show, cuts in fees to talent, trims to lighting and set costs," said longtime Norwegian TV buyer John Ranelagh.

He was among 1,000 or so foreign TV program buyers who flocked to LAX on Sunday after a weeklong marathon sashay from Hollywood studio to studio where they viewed the new fall primetime series. All told, the foreign TV contingent spends north of $7 billion a year to buy movies and TV series from the Hollywood majors.

Thus, their opinions matter, even if sometimes their public statements are couched so as not to give anything away to their competitors or not to offend their Hollywood suppliers.

Like several other buyers, Ranelagh, head of program acquisitions at TV2 Norway, is concerned that the studios' cost-cutting moves will affect the quality of series content.

"I would say that it was a solid but not a standout year," said Gill Hay, the top buyer for Britain's Channel 4. "There were a few very strong shows, but then a second much larger tier of OK shows. Very little felt truly original."

Leaving aside general comments on the new series, the fact that the studios are spending less to make most of their series could indeed become a new negotiating tool by foreign buyers in trying to keep a lid on prices per episode.

"The Hollywood studios are spending less to make series, so it's logical that we buyers should not have to spend more in order to acquire them," said another European-based buyer.

Not that folks didn't respond favorably to what was on offer the past week, including 20 new dramas and nine new sitcoms for the five broadcast nets as well as a considerable number of new cable shows.

"Everyone agrees that this has been a strong year. Each of the studios had at least one or two pilots that I could easily see would be of interest to buyers in the U.K.," said the BBC's new head buyer, Sue Deeks. Britain is essentially the only major market where the buying is a la carte, and there are no long-term volume deals with the Hollywood studios.

For Ranelagh, "Glee" at Fox and "Mercy" at NBC Universal "stood out." The CBS slate was, he pointed out, "the best they've had in years" -- a good thing since the Scandinavian buyer just renewed a long-term deal there through 2014.

Other buyers had upbeat things to say, but then, anything would have been better than last year's sparse and strike-ravaged TV development season stateside.

Among the comments from a variety of buyers from different territories, Warners' overall slate, Disney's "Flash Forward," HBO's "Hung," MGM's new "Stargate" and Sony's new offerings were all rated positively. Dramas got much higher marks than comedies, with Hay suggesting all of the latter were too broad or family-oriented for the tastes of the Channel Four audience. (He did buy Fox's "Cleveland," which he said fits the cheeky tone the station looks for from American sitcoms.)

Dirk Schweitzer, the top buyer for German powerhouse broadcaster RTL, was moderately pleased with what he saw, including the shows in his two output deals with Fox and NBC Universal.

Interestingly, he was particularly impressed with "White Collar," a drama made not for NBC but for USA Network, which he said follows in the tradition of "Monk" and "Psych" by being focused "strongly on character."

"That's what we look to America for," he explained, "classical investigative dramas with strong characters."

Schweitzer also gave high marks to Warners dramas like "V" and "Human Target," though that studio's slate is still earmarked for his rival, ProSieben.Sat1.

"It's the right slate to have taken over," Schweitzer said, referring to the fact that RTL will acquire Warner output beginning with the 2010-11 season.

Warner Bros international TV president Jeffrey Schlesinger admitted that pricing was a little trickier but was optimistic about the generalized reception of his studio's new fare.

"Despite the tough economy, buyers were enthusiastic about what they saw and pleased that a lot of it looked like it could play in primetime, helping to balance the cost-cutting of their local production," he said.

Canada, Schlesinger added, was "a bit more sober" and the U.K. has "yet to place offers" but he has been told to expect bids from multiple buyers this week for shows like "V" and "Vampire Diaries."

"In my calculations, there were half a dozen new shows that everyone will coalesce around," said veteran British buyer Jeff Ford, who is now with Channel Five. "We're known for our reliance on and programming of American series -- 'CSI,' 'NCIS,' 'Law & Order' -- but though we have the best, slightly older-skewing dramas, we're now on the lookout for younger-skewing material."

A show like "Vampire Diaries," which is for the CW, is one of the shows on offer that might fit that bill.

Like his colleagues at rival British broadcasters, though, Ford is playing his cards close to the vest until they have to be turned up on the table, which could be days or weeks from now if there is competition for a few titles.

He did offer that unlike a couple of his rivals -- such as the presumably cash-strapped ITV and the perennially beleaguered BBC, whose every penny is scrutinized by the government and the tabloids -- Channel Five has what he termed "some money to spend."

"We'll be talking to the suppliers about a few of the new shows," he said.

No one, however, seemed to think prices for anything would be through the roof.

"We will definitely not be overspending or engaging in so-called bidding wars to secure content at any cost," Channel 4's Hay said.