Global market for U.S. TV shows slows, but the food’s still good


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It may have been a national holiday, but the Hollywood studios were open for business Monday hawking their new television shows to buyers around the world. The foreign bazaar, known as the LA Screenings, happens every May right after the U.S. broadcast networks announce their fall schedules.

On the surface, it looks like another typical industry boondoggle. On Monday, the Warner Bros. lot was full of caterers scrambling to and fro with cuisine ranging from exotic lamb kabobs from an out-of-the-way (i.e. Glendale-based) Armenian butcher to a knock-off of Roscoe’s chicken and waffles. In a sign that the lot was the hot spot of the day, there was even an appearance by the trendy Korean Kogi BBQ Truck, which has built a huge following on Twitter and often has lines that run more than 300 people deep. Attendees spent their day screening pilots in the plush Steven J. Ross theater and the rush to the bathroom in between shows looks like the seventh-inning stretch at Dodger Stadium.


But fancy cuisine and cushy seats aside, a lot is at stake here. With the domestic marketplace for program reruns contracting, overseas sales have become crucial in picking up the slack. Most shows that the studios make for the broadcast and cable networks are done at a deficit and having programs that play overseas is one way to close the gap. In some cases, a show can even become profitable in its first year if it garners enough sales in the international marketplace. CW’s remake of ‘Beverly Hills, 90210,’ for example, was renewed for a second season in no small part because the teen soap was sold in 170 markets, ensuring that much of the world can view conspicuous American consumption at its finest.

Warner Bros. said it expects record revenues from foreign sales this year because most of the deals were done before the economic crisis hit. But with much of the world in an economic downturn of unprecedented depth and duration, the future doesn’t look as bright.

Asked where the most challenging markets will be, Jeffrey R. Schlesinger, who oversees international television for the studio, didn’t even need a pause. ‘Unfortunately, the answer is everywhere.’ The Canadian buyers had already passed through the lot Sunday with much smaller wallets than usual. ‘Prices were not at the level of the past two years,’ Schlesinger observed. The United Kingdom and Australia are also challenged. While lots of new buyers have emerged recently most don’t have the deep pockets of the entrenched networks.

Yet Schlesinger, who has been at this for more than 20 years, is not all doom and gloom. ‘I think we will weather the downturn pretty well.’

The silver lining, he said, it that a lot of buyers may cut back on their own original productions in favor of outside content to lower their own risks. ‘They have the same hit-and-miss ratio as we do so buying from us is a safer way to go ... we give them $3 million an hour in value for a couple of hundred thousand dollars.’

Stuart Murphy, head of programming for several of News Corp.’s SkyTV channels in the U.K. said that while he has money to spend, the general marketplace ‘is going to be quite grim for the next few years.’

It’s feature films that are most challenged thanks to DVD sales, the growth of on-demand programming and, of course, piracy. ‘The value is going down,’ said Guido Barbieri, who buys programs for Italian broadcaster Mediaset.

One growth market is Eastern Europe. Schlesinger says the region now generates more dollars than Latin America. Russia, Poland and Romania are particularly hot right now, and deals are done in U.S. dollars. Perhaps in anticipation of the next question, Schlesinger volunteered, ‘and yes, we do collect our money from them.’

That’s good because that Armenian butcher doesn’t come cheap.

-- Joe Flint