CBS looks for growth abroad, with David Hasselhoff's help

Broadcaster's production arm is venturing into foreign-language programming with German spy show 'Ze Network'

CBS Studios is betting Germans still love David Hasselhoff.

The production arm of U.S. broadcaster CBS is venturing into local-language programming abroad, and one of its first projects is a dark comedy starring Mr. Hasselhoff that will debut next year on TV Now, a video-on-demand platform that is a unit of Germany's Mediengruppe RTL.

"Ze Network," which starts production in July, will feature Mr. Hasselhoff playing a fictionalized version of himself who comes to Germany to do a play and ends up getting caught up in a post-Cold War spy story. The show will be in German and English and distributed outside of Germany as well.

"It will either be a massive hit world-wide or a major flop," Mr. Hasselhoff said in an interview. "I know it will be a hit in Germany."

"Ze Network" is one of several projects CBS Studios has in the works overseas as a plan hatched in 2017 that is starting to pay dividends. It also has deals to make series in the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Africa, Australia and Israel.


CBS Studios is the latest U.S. entertainment company looking abroad for new productions and revenue. Netflix Inc. has been very aggressive in creating content for local markets to drive subscriptions to its platform, as has Inc.'s Prime Video service.

"Local-language productions are robust," said CBS Studios President David Stapf.

The 68-year-old Mr. Hasselhoff—who will speak English as well as some German in the show—has been a phenomenon in Germany since the 1980s, thanks to reruns of his talking-car show "Knight Rider" and his pop music. He famously performed at a New Year's Eve concert in 1989 at the site of the Berlin Wall just weeks after it came down, cementing his status there.

"Ze Network" is co-produced by Syrreal Entertainment, which has a first-look deal with CBS Studios. Mr. Hasselhoff said he was eager to work with Syrreal because he is a fan of another one of its shows, the crime drama "Dogs of Berlin."


Mr. Hasselhoff said he was "a little bit freaked out" by the pitch but was sold by the fourth reading of the script. He said he hopes to incorporate what he describes as his own escapades behind the Wall, describing the show as "'Confessions of a Dangerous Mind' meets Ingmar Bergman."

Meghan Lyvers, senior vice president of co-productions for CBS Studios International, said the partnership between Syrreal and CBS Studios allowed for the budget to be larger, in turn helping the creators achieve their vision.

"Some of these ideas can't get done on their own," she said.

CBS Studios is expanding through partnerships with local production companies primarily to feed hungry subscription video platforms rather than create its own channels, an approach to content the company has long had.

While parent company ViacomCBS Inc. also creates local-language programming for the international versions of its cable channels and third-party platforms, CBS Studios entered this arena before the merger of CBS and Viacom and its operation will continue, similar to how there are multiple production units throughout the company.

"We all are enabling the corporation to broaden its reach with all the various studios," Mr. Stapf said.


CBS Studios has been very successful in the U.S. selling shows to non-CBS companies including Netflix and Walt Disney Co.'s Disney+ streaming service, but continuing media consolidation could make that tougher in the years to come. Netflix, WarnerMedia's HBO and HBO Max and Disney+ as well as the broadcast networks are all placing a bigger priority on owning as much of their content as possible, making it tougher for outside studios to sell them content.

ViacomCBS has recently rebranded and relaunched its CBS All Access streaming service as Paramount+ and is eager for new content. The CBS shows it is making abroad could end up living on that platform at home.

Other projects in the works include "The Darkness," a Scandinavian crime drama CBS Studios is making with Stampede Ventures, and "Bestseller Boy" for the Netherlands with Avrotros production company that is based on the bestselling Dutch novel by Mano Bouzamour about his challenges as an immigrant in Amsterdam.