Why Europe Is Kicking U.S. Series Out of Primetime

Borgen Still - H 2015

Borgen Still - H 2015

American dramas, once dominant, are being eclipsed by strong homegrown programing ('Broadchurch,' 'Borgen'), even as digital opportunities grow.

This story first appeared in the July 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Not long ago, the European TV landscape was dominated by Hollywood programming. During the 2000s, such blue-chip U.S. series as House, Desperate Housewives and Law & Order thrived in primetime while locally made shows offered little resistance to the American juggernaut.

How the mighty have fallen.

These days, U.S. drama series are on the decline throughout Europe. According to Eurodata, which compiles the continent's ratings information, nearly 20 percent of the top-rated series on European TV in 2009 were American. By 2014, that figure had dropped to slightly more than 10 percent.

"In many regions you can't find any U.S. series in primetime," says Jens Richter, CEO of TV production and sales group FremantleMedia International. "It's all local stuff."

Credit a wave of top-notch Europe-made drama -- from Britain's Broadchurch and the Danish political series Borgen to the Spanish melodrama Velvet and France's The Returned -- that is luring audiences away from American fare. Says Sahar Baghery, director of Eurodata's international TV formats division, "You are seeing U.S. shows shift to smaller channels -- from the BBC and ITV to Channel 4 and Channel 5 in the U.K., onto Quatro in Spain or Sweden's TV3 and Kanal 5 -- and they are reaching smaller audiences."

Michael Edelstein, the London-based president of NBCUniversal International Television Production, notes that the growing strength of homegrown series is one reason NBCU has invested so heavily in local content. The studio, for example, produces the British hit Downton Abbey through its U.K. subsidiary Carnival Films. NBCU recently signed a deal with leading German commercial network RTL and France's TF1 to co-finance and produce procedural series directly for the European market.

Richter also argues that the spread of Netflix and other SVOD services has spurred demand for day-and-date release of U.S. series. "If you aren't day-and-date with an American show in Sweden, for example, you'll lose your first 300,000 viewers to piracy," he says.

"The rise of digital channels and the steady upgrade of pay TV demand for scripted content means the best series have little or no chance to make it on free-to-air anyway," adds Claudio Aspesi, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein, citing recent deals like British Telecom's agreement to carry all AMC shows exclusively on its digital pay TV platform in the U.K. "This further erodes the attractiveness of the remaining U.S. series, which are even less likely to make it to primetime."

But just because there are fewer U.S. prime­time hits on Europe's big networks doesn't mean the continent is watching less American TV, or that U.S. studios are having trouble selling series. The explosion of digital and SVOD outlets means even niche American shows tend to sell out.

Armando Nunez, president and CEO of CBS Global Distribution Group, notes that a record 1,700 international buyers attended the L.A. Screenings in May and June. "I would be more worried if this was 25 years ago and the major European broadcasters were single channels," he says. "These days, they are platforms with multiple channels, including digital ones, that all need content."

Nunez adds that if a studio has the right show, big European networks are more than happy to put it on air. The CSI spinoff CSI: Cyber has sold out in Europe, and the new CBS drama Zoo has been licensed to multiple markets, including the U.K., Germany and India, despite debuting to soft ratings domestically.

Says Richter: "If a U.S. series works, it's still the cheapest proposition an [international] broadcaster can get. But for everything else, there is a lot more competition out there than there used to be."