From Twin Peaks to Rise, from Young Sheldon to Electric Dreams to Snowfall, the breadth and range of American TV programming has arguably never been greater—nor, too, the money it takes to put together and market these series to a worldwide audience.
As has become abundantly clear to Hollywood, the folks in the international market who license this growing array of content—some 500 distinct scripted properties per year now—play a central role in helping fund these assets. It’s a role that the Hollywood studios are banking on to continue as the creative bar keeps edging up.
Whether the deals with foreign programmers take place at the L.A. Screenings or in its wake is not the crucial factor: it’s whether linear and digital platforms around the world continue to thrive, proliferate, refine and expand their taste for American fare—and Hollywood sellers manage to window their product effectively through all of these outlets. So far, so good, though it’s not getting any easier because overseas players, too, are producing more and more of their own local fare. And balking at annual price lifts for U.S. product once considered routine.
Traipsing around this past week to the various Hollywood studios, it’s evident that every executive on the sales side is having to focus, as Keith Le Goy, the president of distribution at Sony Pictures Television, put it, “laser-like” to make sure every asset gets proper exposure in front of prospective buyers.
Some of the things World Screen Newsflash picked up in its chats with three dozen buyers on the studio lots or by phone this week and with the top distribution executives at all the studios:
NO BREAKOUTS BUT NO DUDS There was no This Is Us or Lethal Weapon to excite the buyers this go-round as those two shows did last year. However, many buyers gave thumbs up to the overall level of execution on view, with one saying he found nothing “cringe-worthy.” Shows that got multiple compliments during the week include Warner Bros.’ Young Sheldon, CBS’s SEAL Team, Fox’s Ghosted and NBCU’s A.P. Bio, to name only four. Opined Sweden’s Bonnier Broadcasting’s director of programs, Cathrine Wiernik, “There were fewer paranormal subjects and more military plots; a few great comedies too including the brilliantly made A.P. Bio; odd things too that intrigued like Valor and Claws and Snowfall. Plus, we were proud of the Danish formatted show [Splitting Up Together from Warner Bros.], a little glossier in its American version but very entertaining.”
TWIN WHAT? Arguably the most enjoyable screening was the two-hour viewing over at CBS Studios International of Twin Peaks, which left some folks scratching their heads but nonetheless entranced. (In its first run overseas, the series is largely bespoke by players like Sky, Bell Media and Telefónica.) “It was not in our view a vintage year but the sheer variety of shows was great to see,” said Sky’s director of acquisitions, Sarah Wright. And she called the David Lynch series, which her company has already picked up, “amazing.”
PROCEDURALS ARE BACK Some studios heeded the call from the overseas market and greenlit a fair number of closed-end dramas, or hybrids that are both procedural and serialized at the same time. “We definitely noticed more such dramas, which work quite well for services like ours,” said Catherine Mackin, director of program acquisitions at UKTV. She programs ten distinct channels.
JUST SAY PACKAGES Like the designation “output deals,” so-called volume arrangements too are likely to go the way of the dodo bird in the next few years as more foreign broadcasters limit the number of series they take and/or as sellers themselves find it’s more profitable to play the field. Every major territory will start to resemble the British market, where all the broadcasters cherry-pick from among the series on offer. Sweden’s Wiernik again: “This is the first year we are without a single output deal, so we scoured everything. I think that’s the direction many will be taking. We’ll be regrouping back home and deciding if we want to make a bid for one or two things we liked at the Screenings. Last year we picked up MacGyver; this year we’ll see.” From the sellers’ side, here’s how Fox’s president of global distribution, Gina Brogi, described the shift: “So much content on one linear broadcaster just doesn’t make sense anymore.”
THE LONG AND THE SHORT OF IT As new platforms proliferate like mushrooms abroad, they carve out different niches with different needs. Many of them prize flexibility and thus are looking for shorter-run material like say, CBS’s Salvation or NBCU’s Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders or Sony Pictures Television’s Electric Dreams, while linear players continue to find uses for a few 22-episode series that can play for years. This market came up with a good mix, buyers said. “Increasingly, broadcasters are looking for shorter, more flexible material and appreciate these shorter batches, which often can attract top-tier movie star talent,” said Dermot Horan, acting managing director for television at Ireland’s RTÉ.
OUT OF LEFT FIELD Although the focus of Screenings is on the pilots for the five broadcasters, distribution chieftains increasingly screen material from their cable siblings. Several such titles caught buyers’ fancy: Siren, which is one of the new offerings from Disney’s Freeform; The Sinner, a mystery procedural from NBCUniversal’s USA Network; and Snowfall, a gritty exposé of the drug trade from Fox’s FX outlet. “We really don’t distinguish between broadcast and cable shows when we come to buy. We have done quite well with a number of shows produced for cable in the U.S.,” Mackin said.
ENOUGH ALREADY After a week in darkened screening rooms it was inevitable that buyers would tire of something there was too much of. Fatigue set in for what regards superheroes. “Let the movies do that; that’s not what TV viewers want. There are just too many of these super-endowed guys,” quipped Rudiger Boss, executive VP of group programming acquisitions at ProSiebenSat.1.
ART OF THE DEAL No seller bothers to tout one single deal these days, preferring instead to talk about the portfolio of assets he or she manages and which has to be monetized. The Screenings has devolved into a showcase for product, which many studios follow up on a few weeks later by setting up shop in various locales abroad to firm up their sales pitches.
THE BIG QUESTION What every buyer wanted to know from every producer or writer who dared show up: “Where does your show go from here?” As good as most pilots looked on screen, very few folks are prepared to fork out for something before they know what they’re getting in terms of story arc. Actual deals may not come together for as much as six months.
THE SHOW IN SHOWBIZ All the studios made efforts, some more elaborate than others, to turn their back lots into a funhouse—photo ops with stars, visits to sets, virtual reality experiences and robots, chats with producers and parties.
FREEBIES In keeping with the more staid approach to the business that TV types adhere to, tchotchkes were pertinent but not lavish. Pens that light up in the dark are always good—thank you Warner Bros. and CBS—as are the latest little tech gizmos that appeared here and there, (and befuddled some recipients). Best of all was a colorful blanket passed out by Lionsgate for those darkened rooms. And no, the blankets weren’t to encourage buyers to sleep through the screening of Candy Crush but rather to keep them warm if the AC got too energetic.