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Appetite for niche: drama options are everywhere, forcing buyers to be discerning.

As international TV producers ramp up their efforts in the scripted market, competing with the U.S. broadcast and cable networks, acquisition execs will be able to gorge themselves on drama skeins and TV movies at Mipcom. But is there an appetite for this glut of drama?

"While it may be true that there are a lot of drama shows on the market, there aren't that many that are getting good ratings abroad," says Bertrand Villegas of TV consultancy the Wit.

Of the past season's newbies, only a few series, including "Hawaii Five-0" and "The Walking Dead," have struck a chord with viewers worldwide, Villegas says.

Budget cuts and the popularity of local productions have led many free-to-air broadcasters to scale back on foreign acquisitions. The BBC, for example, made only one purchase at the L.A. Screenings, "Pan Am," although it recently bought Australian series "The Slap."

So what will buyers be eyeing when they get to Mipcom?

"The one thing that we are always looking out for is just very good, distinctive pieces," BBC head of acquisitions Sue Decks says. "The sorts of shows that the BBC wouldn't necessarily make itself. Something that takes an existing genre and subverts it or just has a different take on it."

As well as their main terrestrial channels, most broadcasters also have a bouquet of digital channels catering for a niche audience. This has opened up the market for specialty drama.

The BBC, for example, now has a slot for foreign-language drama series on its upscale web BBC4, for which Decks recently bought Danish political thriller "Borgen" (Government).

The pubcaster has to compete for the U.K. rights to shows with satcaster BSkyB, which, like other pay TV operators, wants to acquire series with a strong pedigree to boost its brand and draw in new subscribers. This has given the company a voracious hunger for top-dollar drama.

"Ultimately, we are a pay TV business, and we want to give our customers programming that we firmly believe is worth paying for," says BSkyB controller of entertainment acquisitions Sarah Wright. "So that is always in my head: Is it going to be talked-about TV? Is it of the right quality for our customers?"

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But are producers supplying the type of shows that these channels need?

Wright was impressed by the skeins on offer at L.A. Screenings, where BSkyB picked up sci-fi series "Terra Nova."

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"America seems to have an appetite for risk-taking in the schedules at the moment," she says. "The autumn's really interesting. So I think we are in a good place. It feels like there's a spirit of renaissance."

BSkyB doesn't rely solely on U.S. fare. Recent purchases include Australian drama "Cloudstreet" and Italian-language Mafia skein "Romanzo criminale."

The competish to fill slots for acquired drama is growing ever more intense with several international players upping the ante.

London-based FremantleMedia, already a leading producer of soaps in several countries, is ramping up its distribution of returning English-language drama series through a number of first-look deals between its commercial division, FremantleMedia Enterprises, and leading U.S. and international producers.

In the U.S., this has included development pacts with Mike Tollin, who co-created "One Tree Hill" and "Smallville," and Bob Cooper, the former HBO Pictures prexy and Artisan Pictures CEO.

At Mipcom, FME will also unveil first-look deals with three other leading U.S. producers, yet to be named.

FME sold 17 scripts to 13 cable channels in the last development season in the U.S., and from that came Tollin-produced comedy pilot "The Wedding Band," which has been ordered to series by TBS. The skein will be one of the cabler's tent-pole series next summer and will be launched at Mipcom.

FME CEO David Ellender says that there has been a change in the attitude of U.S. showrunners, who are now open to what's happening internationally "because we want to make something that is going to be successful in the U.S., but we also want to make a property that will travel."

FME has inked a number of development deals with drama producers in the U.K. and Australia. This includes a pact with the U.K.'s Paul Abbott, the creator of "Shameless," whose new series for BSkyB, "Hit and Miss," has just been sold to a U.S. buyer. The skein stars Chloe Sevigny as a pre-op transsexual hitman.

FME has also inked a first-look deal with Australia's Playmaker, whose transmedia drama project "Slide" will launch at Mipcom.

Another leading player, L.A.-based MarVista Entertainment, recently announced an injection of extra coin, which will allow it to double output from its present 15-20 TV movies a year.

The company mainly produces shows that are targeted at a particular demographic, and demand for such product is rising. "We are seeing a vast growth in the output of drama series and TV movies being produced out of the U.S., and that is primarily because everyone is fighting for room in the cable landscape and trying to differentiate themselves," MarVista CEO Fernando Szew says.

Szew sees shows produced for tweens and teens as a growth area. MarVista's TV pics made for this market include "Radio Rebel," and Debby Ryan starrer "16 Wishes," both commissioned by the Disney Channel.

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Christina Jennings, chairman and CEO of Canada's Shaftesbury Films, says she is optimistic about the state of the TV drama market, with many broadcasters reporting a hike in ad revenues and new channels launching around the world.

"We are all very fortunate that the market right now feels incredibly robust," she says. "There are a lot of buyers, so we are all coming into a really healthy, competitive Mipcom."
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Title Annotation:V plus: MIPCOM PREVIEW
Author:Barraclough, Leo
Publication:Variety
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 26, 2011
Words:957
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