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The Universal Appeal of Schlock

Fortune Magazine

12 May 1997

scanned/transcribed by MaryD


THE LAST TIME AN ACTION SHOW WAS ATOP THE Nielsens, America swooned over scruffy, sockless Don Johnson, patrolling Miami's streets. Judging by the crop of fall pilots and the breakout success of shows like Xena: Warrior Princess, the top-rated syndicated action hour in the U.S. (which depicts the trials of a strapping, leather-clad heroine who kicks ancient Greek butt), the genre's making a comeback. Foreign audiences can't get enough of it; Xena-philia is rampant in Europe. "Action hours were a dying breed until the international market just asked for more," says Christine Amdur of Baskerville Communications in London.

Production companies used to make a ton of money creating action dramas for U.S. networks and selling them into syndication after 100 or so episodes—what they made overseas was gravy. Now, domestic revenues alone are not enough to make a network show profitable. When Hollywood heads to Europe and Asia to sell its programming, about 50% of a show's potential revenues are at stake. Action hours, depending on their quality and U.S. performance, can grab as much as $150,000 per episode in Europe. The chairman of International Television Trading Corp., Klaus Hallig, calls this trend "a Marshall Plan in reverse."

With the burgeoning foreign market, studios have found an afterlife for a genre that was presumed dead. While sitcoms have become the profitable darlings of U.S. network syndication, drama reruns, other than the most successful, have ended up on cable, if anywhere. "The domestic revenue stream is nowhere near where it was. Basic cable doesn't pay what free syndication used to pay ... You're not getting that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, which was syndication," says veteran drama producer Dick Wolf, creator of NBC's Law & Order and Fox's New York Undercover.
Xena is not the first action show to conquer the overseas market: Baywatch is the show that proved the interaction shows like Xena are a hit in the U.S and—especially—overseas.

National appeal of high-action dramas with simple plots (and buff cast members who don't wear much clothing). When NBC canceled the show in 1990, the show's producers, eager to keep it afloat, solicited foreign partners to finance it. Since then it's become a phenomenal hit in Europe and has demonstrated how lucrative foreign markets can be. Universal Studios, one of the largest providers of American programming abroad, capitalized on this trend early by signing deals with European net works to ensure that its programming has foreign outlets. Over the past year, Universal signed se\ eral lucrative deals to package older shows like Columbo and Miami Vice (which might otherwise collect dust in its library) along with fresh schlock like Xena.

Seeing that Xena has done so well abroad and in the U.S., studios are working on a sle\ of action-adventure pilots for the fall TV season Network press kits are packed with pilots like Players, a police drama starring rapper Ice-T, and Timecop, based on the Jean-Claude Van Damme mo vie. Universal is developing Team Knight Rider, a synd dicated version updating the 1980s hit. For all the studios' eagerness, however, they may be too late. Europeans' television habits are as fickl as Americans'. Comedies, once duds overseas be cause of translation difficulties, are becoming more popular. Kirch Group, a German medi company, may launch a comedy channel that with incorporate NBC's Friends and Seinfeld as well some German sitcoms. This new channel also ex emplifies the largest problem American studio will face, namely that European viewers—and Eu ropean governments—want more locally produced fare. "You don't need a quota to tell people that the want to watch local shows. To fight for ratings. [Eu ropean broadcasters] need their own homegrown stuff," says Amdur. "I think [American] studio should enjoy the windfall, because they are not going to get it again." This makes sense in theory, but ... German sitcoms? — Henry Goldbla

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