WORLD VIEWS: In Germany, Seinfeld really is a show about nothing: The Munich-based network Kabel 1 has just pulled the sitcom that will cost NBC more than $3 million per episode to air this fall in favor of Hogan's Heroes. Meanwhile, in France, where disdain for U.S. culture is the norm, CBS' apple-pie Western Walker, Texas Ranger is walking tall.
Welcome to the wacky world of international TV sales. As the number of new channels overseas continues to grow, so grows the appetite for American product. Moreover, while dramas have been successful abroad for some time (Baywatch, for example, has been one of the top shows in Germany for the last several years, and The X-Files is a smash virtually worldwide), sitcoms are also gaining momentum. The Nanny is huge in Asia, preferably undubbed; the audience ''loves her voice,'' says Rachel Wells, senior vp of marketing for Columbia TriStar International Television, which distributes the show. African-American comedies have found audiences too: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was a favorite in Spain, as is Urkel. In fact, Family Matters is the No. 2 U.S. series there behind Melrose Place, drawing an estimated 2.5 million viewers for each showing (Spain has 12 million TV households). Urkel's popularity ''is one of the more fascinating trends in the international market,'' says Lisa Gregorian, vp of international marketing for Warner Bros. Television.
Perhaps most indicative of the seemingly insatiable appetite for American product is the recent sale of Kirstie Alley's new Warner Bros. fall sitcom, Veronica's Closet, to British broadcaster ITV for an estimated $100,000-plus per episode and that's based on the pilot alone! (The amount of time between a show's U.S. airing and its international debut can be anywhere from six months to two years, so it could be a while before ITV finds out whether Alley's show delivers a big enough bang for the pound.)
With networks constantly battling producers and studios to keep costs down, growing overseas revenues couldn't come at a better time. According to industry estimates, international TV sales (both pay and free) have grown into a more than $2 billion-a-year business for all the major studios combined; ER alone generates upwards of $1 million per episode in overseas revenue for its studio, Warner Bros.
But as Seinfeld's German failure proves, even our best shows don't always fly. (Wells, who also oversees the distribution of Seinfeld, believes that Jerry and friends don't travel well because ''the humor is difficult to translate.'') Then again, the reverse can also be true: Dark Skies, the X-Files clone that couldn't buy an audience when it was on NBC last season, is such a success abroad that its studio, Columbia, is considering several two-hour movies solely for the international market, a move that would have been unheard of only a few years ago. Anybody got a conspiracy theory on that?
SPEAKING OF CONSPIRACIES... The good news: Glen Morgan and James Wong, who as coexecutive producers of The X-Files were responsible for some of that show's most memorable episodes, will join Files creator Chris Carter as exec producers of the still shaky Millennium. Says Twentieth Century Fox Television president Sandy Grushow, ''With Chris writing and producing X-Files' fifth season, as well as the feature film, it was critical that we identify exec producers who could enable Millennium to grow.'' The bad news: Morgan and Wong will exit their X-Files duties.