The international television business was founded on the sale of U.S. dramas — initially feature films, but primetime TV drama quickly followed. So, it is no surprise that, from the very early days, U.S. series dominated international TV drama sales. But that is no longer the case — new challengers from Europe and around the world are winning converts for a genre called “fiction” outside the U.S.

Greg Phillips, president of Content Television and Digital, is unequivocal, “[fiction or] non-U.S. drama competes very ably with American drama in the international market,” adding, “indeed it sometimes outperforms U.S. drama.” Citing Line of Duty as an example of just such a series, Phillips said, “when I say Line of Duty has been a big success internationally, I don’t just mean it has sold well to the usual suspects such as Australia and the Commonwealth, Scandinavia and The Netherlands, but also to Germany, France and extensively in Latin America and Asia.”

Most of the fiction distributed by Content is British, and while Phillips insists U.K. productions benefit from “strength of storytelling and depth of execution,” he did also admit they “suffer from the British disease — too few episodes!” He also revealed that Content will be announcing “in the near future” that they will distribute non-English language fiction.

While acknowledging that, “the U.K. has always held a very respected position as producers of world class fiction,” Tim Mutimer (pictured above), head of distribution at Banijay Group and CEO of Zodiak Rights, was also at pains to stress the growing importance of non-English language fiction in the international market. Pointing to recent examples such as hits The Returned and Deutschland 83, Mutimer also mentioned Zodiak’s own Versailles and Rebellion as “having sold extensively across the world, including several high-profile deals which are soon to be announced.”

Katrina Neylon, executive vice president, Sales and Marketing at Germany’s StudioCanal also cited Deutschland 83 and The Returned as examples of non-English series which were not only very successful internationally, but also sold to the U.S. — in both cases to Sundance TV. And, she asserted, “more and more European fiction series are finding a home in the U.S.,” which she ascribed partly to the presence of BBC America and partly to the Internet which, she suggested, is nurturing a new generation, “that feels completely connected on a global scale.”

Another significant way in which the international drama/fiction market is changing is in the shrinking difference in budgets between the U.S. and the rest of the world — particularly the U.K. and mainland Europe.

While cautioning that, “making comparisons between budgets is very difficult because it depends so much on which network, which slot and what type of show you’re talking about,” Content’s Phillips suggested that, “for a major terrestrial broadcaster here in the U.K. — ITV or BBC — and in a strong slot, you’re looking at around £2 million – £3 million per hour ($2.8 million – $4.2 million), although this can go as low as £1.5 million – £1.8 million ($2.1 million – $2.5 million) depending, as I say, on the slot and other factors such as whether the script calls for a lot of SFX.” Which, he insisted, “compares favorably with an average U.S. cable/broadcast network budget of “around $3 million – $5 million per hour.”

Zodiak’s Mutimer concurred that “the gulf in budgets has reduced significantly over recent years,” something he puts down to “the increasing number of tax incentives available to European producers.” Pointing to a Zodiak Fiction production for Canal Plus, Versailles, Mutimer insisted, “this was the most expensive fiction ever produced in France and is able to deliver the scale and ambition of its U.S. counterparts.”

If the gap between U.S. drama and fiction produced elsewhere is shrinking in terms of budget scale and international success, one area of the business of drama/fiction where differences still remain is that of development.

Phillips characterized the differences between the U.S. and the U.K. as “significant,” adding, “the U.S. has a very structured development system and season — and we all go to [the L.A. Screenings] every May to see the end result. In the U.S., this is a system that must be adhered to ­­— by seasoned and successful producers and newcomers alike. By contrast, development in the U.K. is more project-led. There isn’t a ‘season’ as there is in the U.S., broadcasters want the best talent they can get and the best talent only wants to pitch their project when they are sure it is ready for pitching.”

Although Phillips did acknowledge that, “nonetheless, it is not uncommon for British broadcasters to put out a ‘call’ for a certain type of project. They know their audiences and they know their own minds and will either put out a ‘general’ call, or else they will have a chat with certain producers with whom they have a good relationship and say, ‘we want a show like this for this slot or to replace such and such and we’re thinking of paying about … .’”

Although having a slightly different take on this question, Mutimer broadly agreed, saying, “we are finding that the growth in the scripted market is opening up opportunities for a more flexible approach to development. We are co-developing projects with a number of partners, rather than being tied to one particular network or commissioning broadcaster, as this allows us to cultivate ideas that have a truly global sensibility and appeal.”

The voice of dissent, however, is offered by StudioCanal’s Neylon, who reported, “our model is very similar to how it is done in the U.S. It is a largely collaborative process between the producers and the network or studio and the creatives.” The one difference Neylon did highlight, however, is that, “StudioCanal’s companies do not deliver pilots as in the U.S. Our producers concentrate instead in putting together high quality material based on the type of project or genre our potential partners are looking for.”

Much has changed in the 50-plus years since the television business began to go truly international, and for much of that time U.S. drama has been the 800 pound gorilla. But now fiction is undergoing dramatic changes.

By Bob Jenkins

Audio Version (a DV Works service)