Race for the next `Friends'

The annual Los Angeles screenings is a scramble between British television executives for the next smash-hit US series, but this year's doesn't look like a vintage
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The Independent Online
Los Angeles' luxury hotels, it seems, were crawling with British television executives last week. The Channel 5 contingent was holed up at the French Renaissance-style Peninsula Hotel, the BBC and Channel 4 chose the secluded Bel Air and ITV took up residence at the swanky Four Seasons Hotel.

They were all in town for the Los Angeles screenings - an informal two- week event which is the first chance for British buyers and about 800 other international television executives to see the latest crop of US series. These were announced as part of the new autumn schedules by the six US networks this month. For British buyers the goal over the two weeks is to sniff out the next Friends from the 40-plus new series, beat the competition to it and buy it at the right price.

This year buyers have more shows than ever to choose from with the two newest US networks, UPN and the WB (which launched in competition with CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox in 1995), adding new evenings and series to their schedules. This increase in volume, however, comes as UK buyers are becoming increasingly selective about US series.

"There are an awful lot of programmes this year and, so far, they are not awe inspiring," explained Jeremy Boulton, ITV Network Centre controller of acquisitions. "We are looking very open-mindedly at all the new shows and are full of hope that one or two spring up and hit us between the eyes."

While last year's screenings saw a bidding war from British buyers for the sitcom Veronica's Closet, featuring Kirstie Alley, and Millennium, the X-Files clone, there are no similar shows emerging this year. "It is a respectable line-up of shows," June Dromgoole, controller of programme acquisitions at Channel 4, said, "but there is not one show everyone is talking about." Though the British buyers could be wearing poker faces to throw their competition off the scent, the same sentiment about a mediocre span of programs was echoed by buyers from other countries and some studio executives.

Not that Britain, with its strong domestic television business, has ever been the goldmine for US shows that territories like Australia and Canada have been. However, in recent years, with the growth of BSkyB with its import-heavy schedule and the addition of the feisty Channel 5, prices paid for the top-notch American product have soared.

Channel 5 has been particularly aggressive in chasing US product. Before it had even launched in 1996, it tried to steal Friends and ER from Channel 4, which was at the time negotiating a renewal on the two Warner Brothers series. Channel 4, which had originally paid about $150,000 an hour for ER, was forced to pony up $250,000 to hold onto the show, with a similar increase for Friends.

Prices continued to push upwards last year when Channel 5 signed a multi-year output deal with Warner Brothers for movies and series worth $140m and ITV signed a similar deal with Universal for $75m.

This year's Los Angeles screenings will be a test as to whether the edge has gone off the UK market. Prices are only expected to reach the upper limits if a bidding war breaks out for a hot programme, and even then paying upward of $200,000 an hour for a series would be unusual, buyers say.

While US movies remain strong, US series have not performed consistently in the UK . The BBC's ratings results on shows like Seinfeld and the Larry Sanders Show remain in the "cult status" realm and while Channel 4 has nurtured US shows like Frasier, chief executive Michael Jackson has said the channel will limit US imports in favour of local productions.

Marion Edwards, executive vice-president at 20th Century Fox International Television, who is hosting about 200 buyers a day on the Fox lot, says the state of the British market will not be clear until the end of this week. "As there has been in the past with the British, there is a cautionary approach to buying shows," Edwards said. The mood in Britain mirrors a trend across the Continent, she says, where countries like Germany, which had paid record sums for US shows in the past five years, have cooled on imported programmes.

"There have been changes in the programming appetite across Europe with a preponderance of high-quality local productions," Edwards said. "But we have found that buyers will always make room for a US series that they think will work."

Shows which may get a look in with British buyers include a campish remake of the 1970s series Fantasy Island, featuring British actor Malcolm McDowell; the other-worldly Brimstone, which stars Peter Horton ( from Thirtysomething) as a tortured cop sent to capture escapees from hell, and Encore! Encore!, a comedy featuring Nathan Lane as an opera singer forced to return to his family in the Napa Valley, which includes his mother played by Joan Plowright.

The difficulty for British buyers is picking a hit from the crush of shows. The new series do not start on US television until September so only a pilot is available for viewing. Big-name directors are often recruited for the pilots, which are tweaked by a team of writers and producers, and can represent a level of quality that won't be sustained in a series.

International buyers study the writers and producers of the series for clues about what may work. This year, for example, buyers will be predisposed to Trinity, a series which centres on an Irish American family in New York and is produced by John Wells, who has the same credit on ER. Likewise, the involvement of the creators of Frasier on Encore! Encore! will encourage confidence in those series.

Still, there is the risk that a show with a promising form guide will not make the cut in the ultra-competitive world of network television and international buyers can commit to series which get cancelled in the US. Series from Steve Bochco, the respected creator of Hill Street Blues, are a good example. CBS has just announced that it has dropped Bochco's Brooklyn South after one season, a fate perviously suffered by his court- room show Murder One - both of which sold in international markets.

Even for veterans like Jeremy Boulton, who previously bought programmes for BSkyB, hope springs eternal that the screenings will yield a gem, like that small series called the X-Files which buyers from the BBC picked up on a hunch.

"It would be ideal if we could come back with a show that we all thought was perfect for us, and which we could get into the right slot in our schedule, so we could sit back and bask in the huge ratings," Boulton said. "It is also reasonable to say we are not here to buy for the sake of buying; it won't be a problem if we go home empty-handed."