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Can Indies Fill Major Gap?

The crucial question the upcoming Mip Asia TV trade show in Hong Kong will have to address is this: Can such a market thrive – or indeed, survive – without full and active participation of the major North American companies?

Now in its second edition, the market will have to cope with fewer top-tier Yank players taking stands on the convention floor, and with fewer highranking execs making the trek to the Far East.

“It’s up to the indies to take advantage of the void, ” says one veteran U.S. sales exec. “If they don’t, Mip Asia may not be around next year.”

After initial euphoria about opening the Asian market to U.S. product, most American TV execs now say that aperture is still too narrow to justify an entire market devoted to East meets West.

Consider, for example, revenues that the major Hollywood studios rake in from program sales in the Far East. It’s still quite a minor sum- between 5% and 10% of the $2.25 billion they pocketed from free and pay TV outlets abroad in 1994.

Most of the major U.S. companies either have offices strategically located throughout the region, or make several sweeps through the area each year. Most say they don’t really need a market to take care of this still relatively minor sales business.

Summing up the sentiments of a clutch of heavyweight Hollywood companies, Twentieth Century Fox Intl. TV exec VP Marion Edwards explains why her company’s sales staff will not be at Mip Asia:

“I don’t want or need another market, ” she says. “It doesn’t matter where it is located. We’re marketed out.” Edwards went on to say that the only “absolutely essential market” for her company is the L.A. Screenings in May, and that several others, like Mipcom and NATPE, do indeed “make sense.” The time loss for going to additional ones is, in her words, “crippling.”

Michael Byrd, senior VP of syndication sales for Turner Intl., is also not sending a sales team to Mip Asia. “We didn’t write any additional business that we wouldn’t have written anyway, ” he says. “It’s just too much, too close. It’s not the location, it’s the timing.”

It is probable, however, that execs from Turner’s satellite channel operation in Hong Kong and the Rupert Murdoch-backed STAR TV operation, also based in Hong Kong, will take advantage of the Mip Asia event to conduct some satellite-related business. Columbia Tristar Intl. TV – which has a new office opposite the convention center

– will be repped by William Pfeiffer, senior VP Asia, and his local staff. They’ll throw a party Dec. 1 for CTIT’s Asian clients.

And although few wanted to go on the record, a clutch of U.S. indie sales execs plan to hole up in hotel suites in Hong Kong to conduct business, but will not have stands on the convention floor.

Among the majors, only MCA TV Intl. and MGM Telecommunications Group are taking sales stands. Several key indie distribs – like Canada’s Alliance Entertainment, Rysher Entertainment, Worldvision Enterprises and World International Network – have also declined to go.

Says MCA TV Intl. president Colin Davis, “My own view is that if you’re going to go to these markets, you should do so wholeheartedly by taking a stand on the floor.” Nevertheless, Davis will man a smaller stand and field a slightly smaller contingent.

Gary Marenzi, president of MGM Telecommunications Group, points out that the timing of this market is in sync with his company’s plans to roll out MGM Gold, an Asian channel which will feature mainly movies and TV shows from the company’s library.

“For us, the time in our development is right (for going to Mip Asia), ” says Marenzi. “We need to be talking to potential affiliates, deepening our ties in the region, and generally promoting our new channel.”

Those who will be carrying the ball for the U.S. contingent will be stalwart indies like Saban, New World Entertainment and Westinghouse Intl., cablers like The Discovery Channel, Nickelodeon and E! Entertainment, and feisty upstarts like SIE and Rigel, among others.

Interestingly, the proportion of overall international revenues that come out of the Far East is greater for indies than it is for the majors. That’s one reason why these companies have, by and large, decided to show the flag this go-round.

Views on the market from an assortment of these indie players varied from tempered enthusiasm to weary resignation.

E! Entertainment’s Chris Fager, senior VP of business and legal affairs, says it’s not a big worry for his company whether the majors attend the market or not. The cabler, which does a sizable amount of its foreign business in Asia, is taking a larger stand than last year in a better location on the floor.

Fager says that the entertainment program he is selling is both modular and flexible. “The taste for such imports is greater in emerging markets, ” Fager says, adding that his team has a number of appointments lined up with Far Eastern buyers, much in the same way that business is conducted at Mip and Mipcom.

Michael J. Solomon, president of Solomon Intl. Enterprises, is also bullish on prospects in the Far East. He told Variety that his own library of titles has multiplied exponentially in the last year, and includes programming from Canal Plus DA and Italy’s Sacis, as well as a growing number of American sources.

Solomon has scheduled a press conference during Mip Asia to update reporters on the production of long-running drama serials that SIE is jointventuring in India with Amritraj Entertainment.

“I’m an indie, and I don’t have a huge staff traveling through out the region year-round (like the majors), ” Solomon says. “I can’t speak for others, but I’ve got a lot of business to do (in the Far East) while at Mip Asia. It’s good for me to be there. My own view is that the presence or nonpresence of the major studios won’t dampen the presence or level of activity of buyers.”

Pointing out that the jaunt is not as costly as Mip or Mipcom, Westinghouse VP for international sales and marketing Ray Donahue says, “I think it’s a good thing- Asia is the only developing market left at this point. We’ll attend as long as buyers show up and do business.”

Donahue will launch a couple of new shows at the market – “Wildguide, ” a 13-hour wildlife series, and “Prince of Atlantis, ” a computer-animated show.

Also upbeat about prospects in Asia is Armando Nunez Jr., president of New World Intl. Television Distribution. His company was pleased with last year’s sales results in Asia and will be unveiling a new soap, “Pacific Drive, ” at the market.

“The market is what you make of it: If you go there feeling negative, it won’t work, ” Nunez says. “We’ll continue a number of discussions we began at Mipcom.”

Fremantle prexy Paul Talbot admits his company is going because he committed to it months ago. He points out that his company is utilizing Dianbo Xie, a Chinese native who formerly worked at Canton TV and is now trying to get Fremantle shows on air in China.

Talbot said that Xie wings his way to China every three months, and that some inroads, like a deal for “Baywatch, ” have been made. Talbot, who handles the newly revamped ABC soap “The City” (formerly “Loving”), says the company will be trying to get a deal for that show in China, though that country has never bought a U.S. soap.

One genre that does well in Asia is travel, and IBN’s VP of international program development Kim Thomas says she will make the trek to Hong Kong to tout her company’s latest series, “Islands, ” an unusual docu about contrasting islands around the world.

“We went to the first Mip Asia with modest expectations and came out with better than modest results, ” she says. “That’s why we’re going again.”

Other indie suppliers were more overtly hard-nosed in their approach to the market.

Rigel’s president/CEO John Laing puts the world-weary view most cogently: “The only ones truly excited about Mip Asia are the Midem organizers.” But Laing, who is unveiling an interactive gameshow called “YoYo” to Asian buyers, says gamely he will “give it another shot.”

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