Richard Woolfe on Broadcasting

Why it might be worth taking a chance to pass the screenings test
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The Independent Online

It's that time of the year again when British television executives join their international counterparts in Los Angeles for what is possibly the biggest television lottery of them all - the LA Screenings.

For the uninitiated, this annual convention is a showcase of the studios' crown jewels - their brand new programmes. For one week of the year, we are courted deferentially by our American peers from the moment we hit the tarmac. After all, the news of a quick sale can have a domino effect on territory sales, inducing a spate of panic-buying for fear of missing out on the "next big thing".

As ever, my fellow UK television executives and I are searching for exactly that ... or if not the "next big thing", at least "a certified hit". Of last year's crop, only two series have created any lasting buzz - ABC Studios'Ugly Betty (Channel 4) and NBC Universal's Heroes (Sci Fi Channel). While these two shows prospered, a record number of shows withered, most notably BBC One's acquisition 3 lbs and Channel 4's Kidnapped.

So what are our expectations for this year? Some things are certain in this week of addictive heightened reality. Naturally there are too many "must-have" shows going into the screenings for them to be exactly that (the PRs having done their job well to ensure that this is the case). One show, rightly or wrongly, will become the subject of a furious bidding war and of course the week would not be complete without the public service broadcasters informing anyone that will listen that they will not be entering into any bidding war and are slashing their investment in acquisitions in favour of home-grown content.

But the potential pay-offs make all the claims and counter-claims worthwhile... the truth of the matter is that a good series from the US can do so much for a UK channel and its brand. Sky One's poaching of Lost from Channel 4 is the perfect example of this. Lost was an obvious target and a subsequent success for Sky One, the show has peerless production values, is a recognised brand and boasts a loyal, active audience. Plus it's guaranteed to run for three more seasons.

But what about this year's crop? Interestingly from a domestic perspective, the UK is well represented with both US versions of hit UK formats (let's hope they're more like The Office than Coupling) and high-profile roles for home-grown on-screen talent. Michelle Ryan (The Bionic Woman), Jack Davenport (Swingtown) and Lena Headey (The Sarah Connor Chronicles) have all been generating the right kind of noise and are bound to have us salivating over our martinis and fuelling wicked whispers on the rooftop of the Peninsula hotel in Beverly Hills... well, we have to wind down and literally get off our backsides after eight hours in a viewing theatre.

Last year's near-hysteria saw a record number of shows picked up for the UK market, so on the whole I would advise approaching this year with a little more caution. There's no denying that one or two shows will rightly earn the buzz that's greeted them, but true phenomena such as Friends, 24 or Lost are the exception.

That said, this year's screenings boast a diverse and tempting spate of titles, with everything from Glenn Close's star vehicle, legal drama Damages, the charming Pushing Daisies with Anna Friel and the Terminator spin-off, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, all standing out. Lipstick Jungle, adapted from the Candace Bushnell (yes, her of Sex and the City fame) novels, should generate interest from UK bidders, but are we really looking for a PG-rated version of New York's finest?

The closest thing to a sure thing, at least as far as the Americans are concerned, is Grey's Anatomy spin-off, Private Practice, but while the original series goes from strength to strength Stateside it hasn't yet achieved similar status with UK audiences, where it airs on Living and Five.

But before I get carried away, one last, cautionary note: all pilots are not created equal. Studios are renowned for spending millions on pilot season, pumping big bucks into quickly produced projects whose budgets can never be maintained on a week-by-week basis and whose punitive production timelines limit creativity. Therefore early buzz can quickly fade, leading networks to play the role of public executioner - even Ray Liotta's high-profile drama Smith was axed after a measly three episodes last year.

The early leaders quite often begin lagging before the current television season is over and the runt can sometimes transform itself into a thoroughbred. So for all the caution in the world, you have to be a gambling man to work in television. There is no such thing as a "sure thing" and taking a punt may just come off.

Well played to the football soap coming up to stoppage-time

The final whistle is blown on 10 years of on- and off-the-field shenanigans at Harchester United next month with the final episode of Sky One's trailblazing football soap, Dream Team. Since 1997, the programme has displayed an uncanny knack for mirroring real-life football stories, including bung scandals, dressing-room bust-ups, gambling syndicates and - whisper it quietly in front of West Ham United supporters - points deductions for fielding illegal players. And, dare I suggest, it provided a ready-made template for another successful football drama. I pay homage to the brilliance of Jane Hewland and the team at Hewland International, who have kept the series bubbling over with no little intrigue for a decade.

The show has provided a stepping-stone on the path to fame and fortune for rising UK stars (Gary Lucy, Nathan Constance and Alison King, anyone?). And many a famous name from the intertwining worlds of football and showbiz has made a guest appearance. And there is one final cameo to go. Keep an eye out for the channel controller, who appears in the season finale - blink and you may miss him. It's the end of an era for Dragons' fans but, as all good commissioners understand, the trick is quitting while you are ahead. Watch this space for its replacement.

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