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A week after the broadcast networks peddled their new fall slates to advertisers in New York at the upfronts, television studios did the same for some 1,600 international buyers at the L.A. screenings. And at this year’s annual event, held at the various studio lots in and around Hollywood, one trend was hard to miss.
Whereas almost every network had a time travel show last year, the narrative that’s emerged this time around is the surplus of flag-waving dramas. “There’s definitely been a real militaristic, patriotic direction this year,” explains Jeffrey Schlesinger, president of Warner Bros. Worldwide Television Distribution, whose studio was one of the few that didn’t develop any such series.
On tap is NBC’s The Brave, CBS’s SEAL Team and The CW’s Valor. And Fox had been developing a Behind Enemy Lines reboot, though it wasn’t ultimately ordered to series this season. The trend is perhaps an attempt to reach the country’s many viewers between the coasts in the wake of the presidential election — but do the America-touting series appeal to the international community?
“It’s tricky because everybody at the studio has said, ‘Eh, we don’t know if it will work.’ Nobody can really answer the that question,” says Rudiger Boss, head of acquisitions at German free TV network ProSiebenSat 1, who adds that producers he spoke with at the screenings weren’t even sure if the shows would hit in the U.S. “If you want escapism, it’s the wrong thing. It could work but I doubt it.”
Sky UK’s head of series acquisitions Lucy Criddle has a more optimistic take on how the shows might fare overseas. “I think they can play well even if they’re very American,” she says. “They just have to have some sort of international twist, which the three shows have.”
With Valor and SEAL Team, CBS Studios International’s president and CEO Armando Nunez has two military-theme shows in the mix. He’s betting on the latter’s familial elements and the international cache of star David Boreanaz to make it a draw to foreign buyers. “It is a military drama but it is also a family drama with a big star in David Boreanaz,” he says. “It isn’t just about American soldiers going around the world and doing what they do in the interest of global security — it’s more about what they sacrifice as a result of what their jobs are and their relationships with their families.”
Boss, too, agrees that it’s less about the main characters being in uniform and more about the emotion the show evokes. “In the first episode, they all rescue a hostage, and it [plays on this idea of] rescuing the weak. If they make it emotional, it’s also about the story behind the gun,” he says.
But not every studio had a military drama to sell this year. Gina Brogi, president of Global Distribution at 20th Century Fox Television Distribution, jokes that she thinks it’s refreshing for buyers that the studio has no “rah-rah America” shows when they’ve seen so many over the course of the week. As for how she thinks they’ll be received abroad, it comes down to specific territories and tastes. “I think there was a time where shows touting the might of the American military were popular and might have done well internationally, but I think with today’s political environment it just sort of depends on the country.”
Apart from the patriotic streak, this year’s screenings set themselves apart from last year’s in that there was no singular breakout show among the offerings — whereas Lethal Weapon and This Is Us were the talk of the buyers in 2016. “In past years, you always hear about this studio or that one had a terrible slate or a really great one,” says Brogi, “and I’m not hearing any overwhelming negative response.”
To be sure, there were still a few standouts. Exciting buyers were a few of the reboots on hand, including the Will & Grace revival, The Big Bang Theory prequel and the Grey’s Anatomy spin-off. “When you see the promo for Will & Grace, you immediately think, ‘Oh, my god, it’s a coming home again.’ I think it’s a great idea,” says one European buyer, who adds that the actors look like they haven’t aged. “Either that or it’s CGI, I don’t know,” he says, laughing.
Warner Bros.’s Young Sheldon is certainly generating heat, as well, and should be a no-brainer for the handful of buyers who have already profited from the global success Big Bang Theory. “You’re coming off an existing and well-known franchise, which makes it easy to market the show,” says Schlesinger.
In addition to existing IP, the international community continues to look for procedural-style shows — and there were plenty to choose from this year. “The procedurals seemed to make a tentative return, which the international buyers will always welcome,” notes Criddle. Among the noteworthy ones, according to several buyers: CBS’ Instinct, Warner Bros.’ Deception, ABC’s For the People, NBCUniversal’s Reverie, Sony’s SWAT and Fox’s The Resident.
With broadcast networks seeing ratings and ad venue continue to decline and the syndication market weaken with the growth of SVOD, it’s no question that studios are relying on international sales more than ever. The shift in the market is a welcome one for foreign buyers, who are already seeing networks program more toward a global audience. Adds Brogi, “I really think our production executives are getting more and more in tune with what the international community wants.”
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