As the 51st Monte Carlo Television Awards confirmed, TV procedurals remain the world’s most popular drama format. CSI was crowned the world’s #1 television franchise at the 6th International TV Audience Awards. It pulled in 65.3 million viewers worldwide in 2010. The only other shows that came near it were CSI Miami and House. And both of those are procedurals, too. According to TV consultancy TAPE, the various CSI strands were top of the U.S. imports in France, Germany, Spain and the UK. Meanwhile procedurals NCIS, Hawaii 5-0, and House were among the most popular U.S. imports in Italy. So what is it about the format that makes it so appealing to international audiences?
For a start, procedurals are the TV equivalent of comfort food. By the end of each episode, justice is done, the disease contained, order restored. They’re reassuring for viewers. Crucially for foreign audiences, the format is easy to understand. Also, there’s hardly any serial component, so shows like CSI Miami and NCIS can be viewed in any order. Go on vacation, miss a couple of episodes? No problem, nothing has changed. That’s why Blue Bloods — a show which sounds a bit dull on paper — does so well internationally compared to a critics’ darling such as Mad Men. CBS Studios International president Armando Nunez has praised Blue Bloods as “perhaps not as sexy to talk about, but it has proven a success both on the network and in terms of global distribution”. Blue Bloods has sold around the world not just to tiny channels but to big ones like Sky Atlantic in the UK, Australia’s Network Ten, and Discovery Latin America. John Peek, director of TAPE, whose clients include ABC, NBC and cable channels A&E and TNT, says Blue Bloods’ popularity stems from mixing up a police procedural with a family drama. CBS recently tapped Law & Order veteran Ed Zuckerman to make the show even more procedural. Peek says: “The continuing trend is for procedurals because they use a predictable structure. You know what you’re getting, which makes them palatable when they’re dubbed. Shows that obey the basic rules are easier for audiences overseas to get to grips with.”
Of course U.S. TV is brutal when it comes to weeding out shows that don’t work. Of the 41 network shows and 16 cable shows shown during last month’s LA Screenings, only 25% to 30% will make it through to a whole season. Of the newer U.S. exports, TAPE predicts Hawaii 5-0, NCIS Los Angeles, and The Mentalist will have long runs. Peek says: “Hawaii 5-0 has action, it looks good and it has an exotic location. It feels like the complete package. And the show’s producers learnt from CSI the importance of having some humour.”
National broadcasters in the big five European territories pay a median of between $30,000-$400,000 per hour for a U.S procedural, according to trade magazine Television Business International. Sarah Wright, controller of entertainment acquisitions at UK pay-TV giant Sky, doesn’t see any trends with prices. There are always a few shows that two or three overseas broadcasters in each territory want and prices rise accordingly. Wright says: “I don’t see crazy pricing. There are always some shows that people want because they give a return on investment.”
So, which U.S. imports are most popular in the 5 big European territories?
House MD (TF1), CSI Miami (TF1), The Mentalist (TF1)
What appeals to the French about House and The Mentalist is that lead characters Dr Gregory House and Patrick Jane are irreverent, with Simon Baker’s Mentalist character often being compared to Columbo in the French press. In general, TV is frowned upon by the French middle-class mainly because the most popular shows on national TV are American imports, I’m told.
CSI (RTL), House (RTL), Desperate Housewives (Pro 7), The Mentalist (Sat 1)
German state TV does not air U.S. shows at the moment, although Thomas Bellut, ZDF’s head of programming has said he wants to show Mad Men. Bellut will become Director-General of ZDF next March. For now American series are all shown on private free-to-air channels RTL, RTL2, Vox and ProSieben. Christian Balz, vice-president of fiction production at ProSiebenSat.1, tells me that German viewers prefer procedurals because a problem is introduced and solved within the same episode. The convoluted plotlines of Lost, 24 and Damages all gradually lost viewers over the course of each series. “Our viewers prefer to watch these as DVD box sets,” he says.
Hawaii 5-0 (RAI 2), NCIS (RAI 2), Grey’s Anatomy (Italia 1), House (Italia 1)
Italian TV audiences appreciate U.S. police procedurals and hospital dramas when they are well executed. American shows look more modern than their Italian counterparts, although local drama dominates. Grey’s Anatomy has suffered in its ratings because network Italia 1 keeps moving it around the schedule.
CSI: Miami (Telecinco), CSI (Telecinco), The Mentalist (La Sexta), Bones (La Sexta)
Procedurals again top the U.S. import charts in Spain. I’m told that compared to U.S. imports, local drama looks under-budgeted by comparison. The main Spanish channels put the bulk of their money for original production into dramedy series and interminable reality shows.
CSI (Five), NCIS (FX), The Mentalist (Five), CSI: NY (Five), Glee (Channel 4), Desperate Housewives (Channel 4), Walking Dead (FX), CSI: Miami (Five), Game of Thrones (Sky), Law & Order: CI (Universal Channel)
Sky has become the home of big U.S. programming at a time when other broadcasters such as the BBC and Channel 4 are pulling out of American imports. The BBC, which is facing a 16% budget cut, lost the fourth series of Mad Men to Sky. And Sky has just acquired Glee after the first two seasons aired on Channel 4. Sky is reported to be paying $800,000 per episode compared to the $161,000 Channel 4 paid. Sky’s critics say that often the pay-TV giant poaches later series of shows such as Glee and Lost once rival network TV has built audiences for them. In doing so, they end up acquiring shows which have already peaked and are on the wane. Sky denies this. Sarah Wright of Sky points to Hawaii 5-O and Modern Family as U.S. hits Sky has promoted heavily from the get-go.
As to shows Wright was excited to see during the LA Screenings, she was particularly enthused about Terra Nova (Fox), Alcatraz (Fox), Pan Am (ABC) and Charlie’s Angels (ABC). “The trend seems to be riskier ideas than procedurals,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong – procedurals are brilliant – but things seem to be getting more adventurous.”