|Think Vincent D'Onofrio with a beret and a Gallic shrug of the shoulder.|
In a groundbreaking deal that reps a number of firsts for American programming abroad, Dick Wolf's "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," which D'Onofrio toplines, is being formatted for French audiences by leading broadcaster TF1. The French version will likely air in primetime in 2006.
Though a flood of reality shows and a handful of American sitcoms have morphed into localized hits abroad, Yank drama has been unusually resistant to foreign adaptation.
"It's an enormous accomplishment. By creating a localized French version, the potential to grow that audience becomes limitless," Wolf told Daily Variety.
And in terms of the firsts: "It's practically never happened that a current U.S. drama has been formatted abroad, certainly not while it's still airing on TV," he said.
The deal for the Wolf show was put together by NBC Universal Television Distribution and Wolf Films with TF1 and its Alma Prods. unit.
It's unclear just what the eventual revenues will be from the Frenchified series -- and exactly how they will be split between the two partners. Wolf would say only that it is an international co-production, meaning presumably that NBC U and Wolf Films will receive more than just a format license fee. He also intimated this deal was just the beginning of a global strategy for the brand.
NBC U TV Group prexy Jeff Zucker echoed that view, saying the deal pointed to "a new creative horizon and symbolizes what we want to accomplish with the global assets of NBC Universal."
Also unclear is whether this deal inspires other high-profile American dramas to spawn localized versions abroad.
The "CSI" franchise leaps to mind, as it already adroitly uses different locales -- Vegas, Miami, New York -- as a "Character" element in the series. It's not hard to imagine a localized "CSI: Madrid" or "CSI: Berlin" produced in those cities with local partners.
In any case, the new unit of NBC U, run by Leslie Jones and unveiled just last week (Daily Variety, July 20) is spearheading format sales of scripted and unscripted shows around the world on behalf of NBC U. This is the first deal that falls under this unit's purview.
The arrangement with the French will be unveiled today at the Television Critics Assn. semiannual tour in Los Angeles by Wolf, Zucker and exec VP of distribution Frederick Huntsberry.
The key exec on the French side is Takis Candilis, head of drama for TF1 and president of TF1 Prods.
Candilis said adapting the "Law & Order" characters for French viewers in primetime would enable "a whole new, and much larger, audience to enjoy this great drama."
Skeins aired on TFI
Both "Criminal Intent" and "SVU" have aired on TF1 for years, though not generally in primetime. As in most other European countries, local shows dominate the ratings and the primetime skeds of the key broadcasters. TF1 has had recent success with "Lost," but its biggest current hit is its locally made miniseries "Dolmen," which boasts a 50% audience share.
The agreement marks the first international format deal for any U.S. procedural drama.
The French "Criminal Intent" series will initially adapt the original U.S. scripts, taking into account language, culture and the Napoleonic Code.
In order to adapt the series for a French audience, Alma's Maxime Lombardini will consult with Wolf's "Law & Order: CI" creative team, including Wolf and exec producer-showrunner Rene Balcer, plus the show's writers and producers, along with NBC U's Jones, whose new title is VP of international sales and format production.
"We will be heavily involved in the series, though right now we're just at the preparatory stage," Wolf said, adding, "The French seem to really want our involvement over there in Paris. And at some point they will visit us for bootcamp training in our production Stateside."
As for the biggest hurdle in "translating" the series to France, Wolf said he didn't think there were any huge ones, but that "the casting of the French Vincent will be critical."
Wolf had a "no comment" as to whether there were any other negotiations elsewhere in Europe for formats of the L&O franchise, but stressed he thought such arrangements were "a serious branding opportunity" for the franchise and that he was 100% behind them.
Blighty 'L&O' talks
Preliminary talks were held about doing a British "Law & Order" six years ago, and negotiations took place in Russia two years ago for a similarly customized project. Neither of those efforts seems to have progressed beyond the talking stage.
"Sometimes it takes longer for the dreams to work," Wolf said.
In some ways a deal with the French is ironic, in that they have historically been vocal in their disdain for much of American pop culture; on the other hand, the French gave the world Inspector Maigret and they relish cerebral programming.
Under the terms of the agreement, NBC Universal will retain exclusive worldwide distribution rights to the French episodes, with the exception of French-speaking Europe, which will be handled by Alma.
The "Law & Order" series air an average of 45 times a week on U.S. networks NBC, TNT and USA and has been licensed in more than 180 countries around the world.
NBC U reps say the brand generated more than $1 billion in ad revenue last year and has spawned "lucrative" ancillary revenue from DVDs, books and videogames.
It's reckoned the individual episodes of these three dramas are generating well over the average $550,000 per episode that U.S. dramas rake in from foreign TV license fees.