How The CW’s ‘Aggressive’ Pursuit of International Shows Has Paid Off

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“We really wanted to give our studios and producers time to adapt to the unprecedented situation,” the CW’s Kevin Levy says

Devils Patrick Dempsey
Courtesy of The CW

When the pandemic forced TV productions to shut down in March, networks were faced with a dilemma — how could they plan their summer and fall TV schedules without knowing when shooting would resume? One clever way some networks have been able to fill out their primetime lineup is by acquiring shows that have already aired overseas, importing fully prepared seasons that would be new to American audiences. The CW set itself ahead of the curve with an onslaught of international shows, a practice the network had begun back in 2015 with the U.K. program “Penn and Teller: Fool Us.” Well before the pandemic shut down production in March, the network had lined up international productions like “The Outpost” (produced for SyFy’s international channels), “Bulletproof” (from the U.K.) as well as “Burden of Truth” (from Canada). (It’s also worth mentioning that The CW borrowed Season 1 of “Tell Me a Story” to air on broadcast after it was canceled by CBS All Access.) “In May, when we did our upfronts, I believe we were the only network that just flat out declared we’re pushing our fall launches to January,” Kevin Levy, the broadcast network’s executive vice president of program planning, scheduling, and acquisitions, told TheWrap. “Now what’s happening is you’re seeing the other networks coming to that point in a lot of ways.” Since March, the network Levy said The CW has “aggressively” pursued other overseas shows, including the Canadian investigative drama “Coroner,” U.K. docuseries “Being Reuben,” British competition series “Taskmaster,” British horror competition series “Killer Camp,” British comedy “Dead Pixels,” Canadian culinary competition “Fridge Wars” and Italian thriller “Devils” starring Patrick Dempsey, which premieres Oct. 7. In terms of viewership, “Penn & Teller: Fool Us” (1.2 million viewers) “Coroner” (836,000 viewers) and “The Outpost” (868,000 viewers) have been The CW’s most successful of the overseas acquisitions bunch. None of the imports have been what you would call a major ratings “hit” — but they have generally performed better than reruns would. (With a few exceptions, like “Being Reuben,” which has averaged a paltry 224,000 viewers. “Taskmaster,” which drew just 216,000 viewers in its CW premiere, was yanked from the schedule after just one episode.) The imports have helped The CW remain flat among adults 18-49 this summer while the other English-language broadcast networks have each dropped by at least 33% year over year (a lack of sports has certainly presented a challenge there). And in terms of total viewers, The CW is down just -9% from last summer. With the exception of CBS, which is down only 12%, the others have sunk at least -28%. And while just airing repeats would be cheaper than acquiring additional programming, importing these shows is significantly less expensive than the development of original series and production of brand-new episodes. Plus, decision-makers like Levy were able to view completed seasons of shows, one network insider told TheWrap. That presented an unusual opportunity to vet an entire start-to-finish run for quality and compatibility. “It really all started in the early stages of the pandemic. We recognized the enormous challenge that our shows would face in resuming production,” Levy said. “We really wanted to give our studios and producers time to adapt to the unprecedented situation and give them the ability to develop strategies and implement safety protocols for when production could resume. And we wanted to be transparent with our advertisers, our affiliates and our audience that it’s gonna take a little while to get these things back on their feet.” The other broadcast networks have mostly taken different paths to fill their schedules. NBC went the international trade route at least once, bringing over medical drama “Transplant” from Canada. A person close to that show’s production said that although the series was picked up before COVID-19 hit, the acquisition turned out to be serendipitous move for the network. At first blush, “Transplant” appears to be at least a modest ratings success for NBC, drawing 4 million viewers for its premiere. CBS will air the first season of CBS All Access’ “Star Trek: Discovery,” the recently-completed fourth season of Pop’s “One Day at a Time” and Spectrum Originals’ “Manhunt: Deadly Game” in September and October. “Big Brother” and “Love Island” started later and will extend further into the fall, and “Amazing Race” was originally set to debut in May but was pushed to Oct. 14. Fox is filling its would-be-vacant time slots with “Filthy Rich” and “neXt,” freshman dramas that were ordered during the 2018-2019 season and already in the can pre-pandemic, as well as “Cosmos: Possible Worlds” (which made its cable debut on Nat Geo earlier this year) and Season 1 of “L.A.’s Finest,” a Spectrum Originals series that launched in June 2019. ABC filled its empty “Bachelorette” slot with its “The Bachelor: Greatest Seasons Ever!” recap show, and aired its limited series  “Genetic Detective” in place of “Bachelor in Paradise.” Because no one knows for sure what the future will bring, networks have to plan for worst-case scenarios. “As a scheduler, you have to be as pessimistic as you are optimistic because your job is to try to foresee different paths that might occur,” Levy said. “We also don’t want to take for granted that everything is gonna go flawlessly when shows return to production either. We’re hopeful that everything goes smoothly, but nobody has a crystal ball, so I think what we’ve learned is it’s better to have more than less.” What we wouldn’t have given for that crystal ball pre-2020.


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