U.S. TV shows thrive on remote appeal


The TV programs "Baywatch," "L.A. Law" and "Medicine at the Crossroads," an eight-hour PBS series about health care, have little in common but this: They most likely would not be on the air here if Europeans weren't watching them there.

Producers of American TV shows are increasingly striking it rich overseas, particularly in Europe, where broadcast and cable networks are growing.

Exporting television programs has become so profitable for producers that what the foreign markets want affects what viewers see here.

The most striking example is the now-syndicated "Baywatch," an hourlong drama about California lifeguards starring David Hasselhoff, which was a hit in Europe when NBC canceled it in 1990.

A big reason for its success was Mr. Hasselhoff, whose earlier NBC show "Knight Rider," about a talking car, had sold well overseas and helped launch his recording career there.

"He's a singing sensation in Germany, in particular," said Paul Siegel, an executive at All-American Television, which produces and distributes "Baywatch." "His records outsell Madonna in Germany."

The result was that, unlike most shows, "Baywatch" survived network cancellation. All-American produced new episodes of the show and sold them to independent TV stations and foreign networks. "Without the foreign dollars, the show would not have gone into syndication," Mr. Siegel said.

Shows from "60 Minutes" to "Studs" are being sold to foreign networks, bringing an estimated $2.1 billion a year back to their owners.

Television may not always enlighten, but it does wonders for the nation's trade deficit.

"American product is truly dominant," said Joseph Abrams, the president of ABC Distribution Co., a unit of Capital Cities/ABC which sells ABC-owned programs abroad. "It is the international currency. It is the king."

"L.A. Law" is another example of a show being kept alive, at least in part, by overseas audiences.

Foreign revenues from "L.A. Law," which is seen in many countries, are making it possible for Twentieth Television, the studio that makes it, to justify another year of production.

Most TV entertainment shows like "L.A. Law" are produced by Hollywood studios and then leased to the networks. Though NBC ordered an eighth season of the show this spring, Twentieth says it isn't getting a high enough fee from NBC alone to cut it.

CBS's "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" also travels well, according to Jim Warner, president of CBS Enterprises.

"If someone said to CBS, the international market for that show is zero, then it would be very hard for that show to get off the ground."

Typically, the networks pay $700,000 to $1 million per episode in license fees for an hourlong drama, which can cost up to $1.5 million to produce. Since not many hourlong shows do well in reruns in the United States, the difference is often made up overseas.

Foreign money is even more important to cash-strapped public television.

Numerous PBS shows are co-produced with broadcasters overseas, including nature shows, science shows and such documentaries as "Vietnam: A Television History," "Africa" and "War and Peace in the Nuclear Age."

"It's clearly a significant support for what we do," said Peter McGhee, vice president of programming for WGBH-TV in Boston, the major producing station for PBS. "It enriches us, financially and intellectually."

But Mr. McGhee recognizes the risks of co-production -- that programs will be reshaped for the international audience, and thereby become less relevant to Americans.

"Any time you accept money, you accept some obligations," Mr. McGhee said.

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