Programmers in Saturated U.S. Market Are Buoyed By Opportunities Abroad

January 28, 2010 – A fact of life for television programmers is that growth is largely tapped out here in the United States. After all, most Americans have cable television service.

But when you look beyond the borders, the opportunities are immense. That was the sentiment from the National Association of Television Program Executives conference held in January in Las Vegas.

The show has become a microcosm for the shifts in the television business. This year’s conference was the last NATPE in Las Vegas before the show relocates its annual event to Miami in 2011. That transition is indeed symbolic of where new growth lies for the TV business — in Latin American, Europe, India and other places outside the U.S.

“International is key to growth,” said Discovery CEO David Zaslav during his keynote at the conference. “When I look at our company three years ago we made $100 million outside the United States. This year, we’ll make more than four times that. It’s a huge growth engine for us, especially because here in the United States the market has slowed. There is growth [internationally] and there remains a thirst for quality content and we have to quench that.”

As international pickup of U.S. shows continues to skyrocket, Zaslav said Discovery increasingly evaluates potential shows based on how they will play overseas.

Investors too are taking note of the international opportunity. Former Fox executive Ross Levinsohn is a managing partner at Fuse Capital, a venture firm that invests in media companies. He’s funded online video firms like Next New Networks, multimedia studios like Generate and several cable channels in India. “There’s a huge opportunity there,” he said.

Smaller producers at NATPE said much of the interest they attracted during the conference came from Korean and Latin American programmers looking for all shapes and sizes of content.

Rebecca Cohen produces and hosts “Get Out of the House,” 60-second vignettes that show fun ideas for family time outside. She said foot traffic to her booth came from both United States and international distributors.

“There was tremendous international interest in ‘Get Out of the House’ from networks, like broadcast lifestyle, children’s, and news programming [reaching] over 52 countries, including the Oprah Winfrey Network,” she said.

Other digital programmers also noted that international opportunities are expanding.

Shirley Bovshow counts viewers for her online garden TV talk show “Garden World Report” in places like the U.S., India, Singapore, Australia, Turkey and France.

“The opportunity to create programs for an international audience is now, whether it be on the network, cable or Web level,” she said. “I’ve found that it’s not enough to present programming from an American viewpoint. I feature ‘virtual correspondents’ from all over the world who are either garden experts or passionate hobbyists who share information from their part of the globe. The show brings the global gardening community together.”

In other NATPE news, Zaslav also discussed Discovery’s plans to launch a 3D network by the end of this year. The 3D network is a joint venture between Sony and IMAX. The decision to launch the network came down to common sense, he said.

“The way technology works is you have to place your bets beforehand,” he said. “If people like to consume it in motion picture format and there is this push to put sets into the home and our content looks good in hi-def, then it should work in 3D,” he said.

Zaslav also emphasized the importance of staying on brand for a cable network, because the brand is what attracts viewers over and over. “The path we are taking is to build brands and to make them dependable and find an audience we can nourish and stay with. When we do it successfully, we will have a more loyal audience,” he said.

Discovery strayed from that brand focus for some of its networks, such as with more Bravo-esque programming in the past on TLC, he said. “We did a lot of programs that looked like what you’d see on A%26E and Bravo and we lost our audience, and it took us a few months to figure out who watches TLC and why do they watch it. They wanted mom stories and programming. Now, we are the number eight network for women 18 to 34,” he said.