U.S. syndicators struggle overseas

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The rising amount of locally created TV content and the poor performance of some countries' economies are cutting into U.S. studios' dominance in global syndication.

Other countries are gaining expertise in creating their own TV shows, which are often less expensive and more locally relevant than U.S.-made programs. Also, the global economic downturn has caused international TV networks to be more tight-fisted in their purchases.

Although the U.S. doesn't dominate as it once did, opportunities still exist as foreign TV outlets, like cable and satellite, mushroom. Also popular are so-called "format" programs like reality shows, in which a U.S. studio licenses the concept to a foreign company that in turn can easily produce a local version of the show for its home market. The top markets for U.S. content are the U.K., France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Japan.

While megahits like "Friends" will always find a market abroad, interest has diminished in traditional half-hour and hourlong U.S. sitcoms and dramas as locally produced content has claimed most of the coveted prime-time slots, says Joe Uva, president-CEO of Omnicom Group's OMD, New York. "What was once 90% dominated by U.S. shows has shrunk now," he says.

"I think people are less fascinated with global culture than they are with their own problems, joys and anxieties," says Bill Wilson, founder and CEO of London-based ECM Group, which develops and packages content for international distribution.

localizing a format

As foreign markets have generated more and more of their own TV content over the last several years, many U.S. studios have focused on licensing formats that can be localized. This has been a boon for reality and game shows.

Another quirk of global syndication is that shows running on U.S. network TV are sold simultaneously in foreign markets, rather than waiting to hit syndication until they've acquired enough episodes for five-day strips. Universal Television Distribution, for example, will be selling its updated version of "Dragnet" to international buyers at the annual conference and exhibition of the National Association of Television Program Executives, kicking off today in New Orleans. "Dragnet" debuts in the U.S. Feb. 2 on Walt Disney Co.'s ABC. In other cases, reruns of older off-network fare remain popular in some countries (see chart below).

Both the popularity of format shows and the international selling of new U.S. programs are fueling the new "Joe Millionaire." The reality dating show debuted Jan. 6 on News Corp.'s Fox network in the U.S. and on Canada's CHUM Television. 20th Century Fox Television Distribution will be licensing the format at NATPE in other countries.

"Viewers like a show with a certain level of unpredictability, and the fact that they are local people [on the show] is all the more appealing," says Marion Edwards, exec VP for 20th Century Fox Television Distribution.

Foreign TV outlets also are seeking more input in the U.S.-created content they buy. "They ask for more-to get on the set, for access to talent," says Belinda Menendez, co-president of the Universal TV distribution unit of Vivendi Universal Entertainment. "They are very savvy in their own markets. It's also important to bring that to the shows."

The ad market remains rough overseas. Ad rates vary enormously from market to market, but were down for the most part by 5% to 10% in Europe last year, says Chris Shaw, exec VP-programming for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Universal McCann in London.

"Europe has been hard hit over the last year. They cannot afford to have a failure, and they are extremely cautious about what they license," says Gavin Reardon, senior VP-international distribution for GRB Entertainment in Sherman Oaks, Calif. Product with a track record and formats that are easily remade are most attractive.


For 2003, Simon Sutton, exec VP-international television at MGM Worldwide Television Distribution, doesn't see a huge upswing in global ad sales, but he does believe the market will be stable. Toni Knight, CEO and founder of ad rep company WorldLink, Los Angeles, believes ad sales could rise as much as 5% this year.

Innovative, big-budget shows like Fox's "24," and NBC's "Boomtown" and midseason starter "Kingpin," can still do well overseas, says Mr. Sutton, whose company sells NBC's prime-time programming outside the U.S. International markets usually have their own 1-hour police drama and 1-hour hospital drama, so they want something a little different from their U.S. purchases, he says. MGM will sell "Earthlings" and "Dead Like Me," both from Viacom's Showtime, into international markets at NATPE.

In the final analysis, "People want to see themselves reflected back on the television," says Mr. Reardon. "The more it reflects the reality of that country, the better is does."

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