Japan's Tohokushinsha, the country's largest distributor of foreign films to television, has signed a three-year free TV output deal with Warner Bros International Television.

The deal includes Warner's theatrical releases for the period 1999-2001, as well as TV series, made-for-TV movies and selected classic film titles.

A prime sales target for the product is the new digital broadcast satellite channels which begin regular broadcasts on December 1, particularly the five free-to-air channels backed by Japan's commercial networks. "But we are not limiting ourselves to them," said Tohokushinsha TV Acquisitions Department manager Reiko Takano. "We plan to sell to terrestrial broadcasters as well."

Tohokushinsha and Warner are already joint venture partners on Star Channel, which being a pay channel is not part of the recent deal. In addition, Tohokushinsha has been selling Warner product for decades to Japanese networks.

However, the new deal is being hailed by both sides as a breakthrough, after a long dry spell in the Japanese market for sales of US television programming. Hollywood movies have long been a fixture on the Japanese terrestrial networks, but successful US television series have been few and far between.

"We hope to change that with the content we have acquired from Warner," said Takano. "We want to open the Japanese free TV market wider for US films and TV shows."