Move Over, Hollywood!

More stations, more ads, and more sophisticated viewers have ignited European TV production

A corpse lies on a park bench in the working-class Paris suburb of Vanves. Sirens blare. Police Chief Julie Lescaut arrives and takes control. An officer reports that the unarmed male victim was released from prison earlier in the day. The beautiful, red-haired Lescaut arches her eyes upward, half in disgust, half in curiosity. "This is no suicide," she announces.

The director shouts: "Cut!," and the first scene for a new episode of France's No.1 television series, Julie Lescaut, has wrapped. Some 11 million viewers, half of France's nightly TV audience, tune into the adventures of their favorite female police commissioner each week. That's almost twice the audience for French TV's top-rated American series this year, ER. Between takes, Veronique Genest, who plays Julie, explains: "The French can identify with me. We film in the Paris suburbs. Our characters eat cheese--not hamburgers."

A new energy is reverberating across the Continent's long-sleepy airwaves. From Belgium's soccer-team sitcom, FC De Kampioenen, to Spain's sexy medical soap, Medico de Familia, to Italy's Mafia melodrama, La Piovra, TV programs featuring local stars, plots, and characters dominate where Dallas and Dynasty once reigned. It's a development that's sure to please Europe's cultural watchdogs, who have long complained of U.S. domination of their countries' entertainment fare. "American themes are simply too far from home," says Riccardo Tozzi, director of television production at Mediaset, Italy's top private media group. It's better "to produce your own stuff because it's alive," adds Helmut Thoma, general manager of Germany's RTL.

A more aggressive, ratings-driven TV business is spurring the shift. Advertisers are now willing to spend big for shows people want to watch. A spot on Julie Lescaut goes for $82,000, vs. $42,500 for ER. Last year, advertisers spent $18 billion on TV spots in Europe, up from $8 billion a decade ago vs. $26.4 billion in the U.S. That's a huge change, when state-run broadcast monopolies filled time slots with low-budget talk shows and U.S. reruns. By 2000, the competition will get even fiercer. Some 500 stations are expected to blanket the Continent by then, compared with 100 five years ago.

For U.S. TV giants, a big adjustment in expectations may be in order. Companies such as Time Warner, Sony-Columbia, and Walt Disney have counted on recycling domestic hits to big markets in Europe to fatten profits and cover ever-rising costs. They have assumed that U.S. pop culture is supremely exportable. Now, they may have to invest more to adapt their products to local markets if they hope to succeed.

Europe's home-grown production houses are already expanding fast to meet the surging demand for local programming. Only six years ago, for example, France's Groupe AB produced mostly records. Now, in a huge studio on the outskirts of Paris, the company has become a star of Euro TV. It turns out 600 half-hours of situation comedies per year, runs its own digital TV satellite service, generates more than $100 million in annual revenue, and is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. "You used to be able only to produce TV programs for the government in France," recalls AB's co-founder, Jean-Luc Azoulay. "But now, there's a real market out there."

Broadcasters are plunging into production, too. Germany's RTL and Kirch, France's TF1 and Canal Plus, and Italy's RAI and Mediaset are jacking up budgets or building giant new studios. Two years ago, Kirch didn't run a single TV studio. Today, it has 10. France's TF1 has tripled production of local dramas since 1990, now spending some $200 million a year. Italy's Mediaset plans to spend $140 million on shows this year, more than double its budget in 1996. "The demand for Italian products is so high, it even surprises me," says Giovanni Tantillo, who became director of Italy's most popular public channel, RAI Uno last year. He has rearranged RAI's prime-time lineup to feature domestic shows six times a week and is producing 150 dramas this year, up from 61 in 1996. Altogether, stations in 16 countries on the Continent and Britain are expected to spend a total of $21 billion on programming this year, up 53% since 1991.

NOT EVEN A BLIP. The Euro TV boom is making life difficult for U.S. networks as they try to expand on the Continent. Since buying the English-language Super Channel in 1993, NBC Inc. has discovered that European viewers want more and more local fare. Although Super Channel reaches 60 million Europeans, "it doesn't get big enough audiences to even bother measuring," says Arnaud Dupont of Mediametrie, a French ratings agency.

MTV and CNN also have run into trouble with their own Europe-wide stations. When TF1 launched a French 24-hour all-news station, most French cable networks bumped Ted Turner's channel. "CNN never will be more than an ex-pat station," says Rainer Siek, president of CBS Broadcast International. A German-language MTV clone, Viva, and a French clone called MCM attract far bigger audiences than their U.S. forerunners.

Still, the news is not all bad for the Americans. Imported U.S. hits such as Baywatch and Santa Barbara fill Europe's airwaves in the afternoon and late night, even though they've been pushed out of prime time. And since Europe boasts many more TV channels than it did a few years ago, demand for U.S. sitcoms and game shows has risen, too. Imports of American programming have soared from $330 million in 1986 to almost $2.1 billion last year. Says Michael Bartholomew, director of European Union affairs for the Motion Picture Assn. in Brussels: "When the pie grows, everybody profits."

Meanwhile, U.S. producers are catching on to European tastes. For its French Disney channel, Walt Disney Television International dubs all of its fairy tales into French, airs live studio shows, and buys French-made programming such as Babar the Elephant cartoons. It costs two to five times more to produce locally than it does to sell already-made programs, but the Americans increasingly feel they have no choice. Disney has bought part of the Scandinavian Broadcasting System, German RTL2, and Super RTL, and it plans to launch new channels in Italy, Spain, and Germany. Both Time Warner Inc. and Columbia Tri-Star International Television have struck production deals across Europe.

Columbia Tri-Star learned the Euro TV business the hard way. When it transplanted the U.S. sitcom Who's the Boss to Germany, problems started with the design of the living room. In the U.S. version, stairs lead to a second floor. But few German homes are built this way. "German viewers even didn't like the `American' ring of the telephone," recalls Nicholas Bingham, president of Sony Television Entertainment's international unit, which owns Columbia Tri-Star. The show, which was aired in 1993, got miserable ratings and was pulled before the end of its first season.

Columbia has since turned to all-German themes. It scored one of its first successes earlier this year with The Campers, featuring a grumpy, middle-class German male who drinks plenty of beer and watches soccer on TV. Its new German sitcom, Nikola, stars popular German actress Mariele Millowitsch as a tough, single-parent nurse named Nikola. She takes no guff from a pompous, obnoxious boss, Dr. Robert Schmidt. The pilot last year won a Golden Rose, Europe's version of the Emmy.

Across the Continent, the most popular shows emphasize nitty-gritty local themes. Recent episodes of Julie Lescaut highlighted such topical French subjects as the closure of an army base and the isolation of "harkis," Muslim immigrants who supported French rule in Algeria. Julie herself is a divorced career woman who must deal with two rebellious teenage children. At the police station, her favorite sidekicks are a Jewish detective and a black officer.

In Italy, this season's hottest show so far has been La Piovra, a two-part miniseries set in Sicily in the 1950s. It tells the story of a police captain who investigates Mafia hit men and corrupt politicians. The show's writers set the story 40 years ago when the Mafia was just gaining in strength.

In Spain, Medico de Familia enjoys wide appeal. Emilio Aragon, a former circus clown, plays a widowed thirtysomething doctor who is a staunch defender of the national health service. He loves women and football, in particular the Real Madrid team. To avoid offending regionalist Catalans and Basques, the writers placed Emilio's birthplace on the border of the two regions. Like many Euro TV hits, the show avoids controversy. "If Emilio turned out to be gay, that would be the end of it," says Pepe Huertas, CEO of producer GECA Consultures.

AMERICAN MASTERS. As European production houses develop their own styles, scriptwriters are nonetheless taking lessons from their counterparts across the Atlantic. Nikola, for example, is written by three Germans and two Americans who pass ideas back and forth by E-mail. Italy's RAI brings U.S. writing coaches to Rome to train local talent. And in Germany, the University of Cologne has shifted the emphasis of its writing courses to screenwriting. "I never used to receive good scripts," says Takis Candilis, general director of France's Hamster Productions. "But today, I get dozens of good ideas."

As they gain more confidence and experience, Europeans are attempting more challenging programs. Germany's RTL last spring made its first action program, Alarm for Cobra 11, an Autobahn police show complete with crashes, explosions, and sophisticated stunt work. Its pilot episode drew 10 million viewers, more than the first German airing of Jurassic Park, and the show is now in its second season. Its budget is an American-style $750,000 per episode.

Other new European shows require even deeper pockets. The hit French detective show Navarro runs about $2 million an episode, with star Roger Hanin receiving $400,000 of that. A new eight-part series starring Gerard Depardieu, an adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, is budgeted at $16 million. A 21-episode, German-Italian-U.S. coproduction of the Old Testament is expected to cost a staggering $200 million by the time it is completed, in 2000 or so.

With such soaring budgets, European stations and production houses may have to scramble to find new sources of programming revenue. Unlike in the U.S., few local European stations air reruns--yet. And it's difficult for producers to earn much by exporting their shows, since the market for German-, Italian-, or French-language programming is limited and ratings are low compared with local shows. Although Julie Lescaut is sold in more than 50 countries, for example, the show's foreign revenues totaled only $33 million in 1996. Each episode broadcast on Germany's Vox network brings in a mere $8,000 after distribution and coproduction fees. Altogether, total European TV programming exports to North America were only $100 million last year, leaving the Europeans with a trade deficit in television of almost $2 billion.

AH, RERUNS. Still, both export and syndication opportunities are increasing. Jean-Pierre Guerin, producer of Julie Lescaut, recently finished filming a new miniseries with Depardieu in both English and French. "We need to crack the American market," he says. Another encouraging sign is the emergence of new rerun channels such as Italy's Odeon TV, Germany's RTL9, and France's Canal Jimmy. "These syndication stations are small," says Andre Lange, editor of the European Audiovisual Observatory yearbook, "but it shows we are copying the American model."

As their TV industry grows, the Europeans are hoping to squeeze Hollywood into ever-smaller segments of airtime. And European producers aim to win bigger audiences by reworking more American ideas for their own markets. "I'm a fanatic of American culture," says Canal Plus International General Director Michel Thoulouze, sitting in front of a James Dean poster in his office. But he knows just how much Americana his audiences want. Canal Plus's Cine Classics movie channel, based on the U.S.'s Americam Movie Classics, features French, Spanish, and other European films in addition to American fare. And its documentary channel, Planete, a knockoff of the Discovery Channel, focuses on current affairs instead of wildlife. "[We've had] enough of those animals," declares Thoulouze.

Canal Plus already has a joint venture with America's Tele-Communications International to produce theme channels, but Thoulouze insists the company will stay independent, both financially and creatively. Pointing to a poster of a roadster on his office wall, he declares: "Inside, it's got a powerful American engine," he says. "But outside, it has European styling!" That local touch, powered by American-style business savvy, should keep audiences tuning in to Euro TV.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.