Media: The American Way

6 minute read
Jeanne McDowell / Los Angeles

When producers of CBS’s hit drama CSI: Miami considered locales for the first episode of the new season, Rio de Janeiro was a natural. The Brazilian megalopolis–a city associated with drugs and danger–was a place where Lieutenant Horatio Caine (David Caruso) could plausibly go to solve his wife’s murder, the crime that concluded last season. But it was also a good business move to film the opener in South America, where millions of loyal viewers watch each week. “We have a responsibility to embrace these markets where we get so much support,” says Caruso, who spent a week in Rio for the shoot. “More and more, I’m realizing our show has a constituency outside the United States that we should be aware of in our story lines.”

Whether it’s Brazil, China or Russia, it’s tough to find a television market where CSI: Miami is not on the prime-time schedule. Although the two other shows in producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s franchise–CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and CSI: New York–are also hits, the lush, exotic backdrop of Miami coupled with its high-tech whodunit forensics have made Miami the most popular TV drama on the planet. More than 40 million viewers a week tune in compared with 18 million in the U.S. It’s Top 10 in most countries where it airs.

Dazzling though it is, CSI: Miami is just one of a number of American shows that are driving the rebound of U.S. television globally. After years of shunning American programming (post-Baywatch’s worldwide success) or relegating it to insomnia-challenged time slots in favor of locally made fare, foreign networks are bringing their checkbooks and appetites to the U.S. with a gusto that hasn’t been seen in years. Foreign rights should ring up about $3 billion for U.S. producers this year.

In part, the expansion of satellite and cable channels throughout the world has vastly increased the need for more content, any content. But inspired by the performance last year of hits such as Lost, 24, Desperate Housewives and, of course, CSI, foreign buyers are also ponying up higher prices for this fall’s new shows, in some cases paying 50% to 75% more for an American drama than they did three years ago. “These new shows have raised the bar for programming around the world and increased the provenance of American TV,” says 20th Century Fox Television president Gary Newman.

Ironically, the success that American shows are experiencing internationally is an outgrowth of the fierce competition for audiences at home. As networks have competed for a shrinking piece of the viewer pie, executives have pushed writers and producers to think more imaginatively and outside the box. The result is a bumper crop of one-hour dramas, such as Lost and 24. “This is the golden age of American television,” says Newman.

Even new fall-season shows that haven’t proved themselves in the ratings have been gobbled up in this American-TV-friendly environment. NBC’s Kidnapped, a suspense show that costs Sony Pictures Television about $2.4 million an episode to produce–and is on the verge of being canceled in the U.S.–triggered a bidding war that ended with Britain’s Channel 4 purchasing rights for a reported $800,000 an episode. The antihero appeal of craggy-faced actor James Woods, coupled with crisp writing and storytelling, has made CBS’s new legal drama series Shark desirable to foreign broadcasters this season, commanding seven figures per episode, which was unheard-of even four years ago. “Every country has crime issues. And even though legal systems are quite different, it’s more about the pursuit of criminals and preventing someone who is guilty of getting away with a crime,” says Sony Pictures Television International president Michael Grindon. 20th Century Fox Distribution president Mark Kaner says he was dumbfounded when foreign firms scrambled to buy The Unit, a U.S. military drama. “But what the series does is give insights into the experience of a soldier’s life and in this way has universal themes.”

Predicting which shows will work in which foreign markets is always a bit of a crapshoot. “Rule 1 of the global TV market is that each market is different,” says Grindon. Comedies, which often get lost in translation or bad dubbing, have been inciting mini bidding wars. ‘Til Death, a conventional sitcom starring Everybody Loves Raymond alum Brad Garrett, and NBC’s offbeat comedy My Name Is Earl are getting as much as $500,000 an episode, compared with $200,000 for sitcoms five years ago. Touchstone’s Ugly Betty is on its second global lap. Based on the wildly popular Spanish-language telenovela Yo Soy Betty, la Fea, it was redeveloped for a U.S. audience and is now being resold in Europe and elsewhere–in some cases dubbed into Spanish.

Laugh tracking all the way to the bank, U.S. TV studios are counting on foreign sales to offset the losses they incur selling prime-time TV shows to the networks. While an hour of episodic TV typically costs $2.5 million to produce, studios usually recoup only 65% of the cost from networks, adding up to $45 million to $55 million in deficits each season. Syndication and foreign rights turn losers into winners. “If we didn’t have international sales, no studio could afford to produce those shows,” says 20th Century Fox’s Newman. “They’re critical.”

Foreign buyers are shouldering an extra risk, since they can buy an American show that works for them but gets canceled in the U.S. In Britain, Channel 4’s acquisitions director Jeff Ford says he was willing to take a risk on the much anticipated NBC drama Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip because of creator Aaron Sorkin’s track record with The West Wing. So far, Studio 60–about a Saturday Night Live–like comedy show–hasn’t performed all that well. “We feel the show goes beyond TV and is a workplace drama,” says Ford of its appeal to British viewers. “But I’ll let you know what happens in six months.”

The only risk-free American television show in the marketplace is The Simpsons, creator Matt Groening’s animated series, which airs in about 100 countries, including Arab countries where an edited Omar Shamshoon (Homer Simpson) doesn’t drink or go to Moe’s Tavern. Arab Homer doesn’t eat pork either, but he is, like a lot of American programs this year, bringing home the bacon. π

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