Mip trip shaping up as must-see U.S. TV

U.S. program suppliers are upbeat heading to the Mip TV trade show, which opens Friday.

Despite startup snafus in Germany and Japan, the launch of digital platforms abroad is unlocking more outlets for their product.

More encouraging, U.S. TV shows are getting the kind of raves abroad not heard in years.

A record 120 U.S. stand-holders — up from 98 last year — will wheel and deal for six days (April 11-16) on the Palais convention floor in Cannes.

That includes all the Hollywood majors, for which the market is mostly a mop-up affair. Some 20-odd newcomers, mainly movie distribbers such as Lakeshore and Troma, also are setting up shop for the 34th edition of the bazaar.

Currently, the international TV biz annually funnels an estimated $3 billion in revenues to the Hollywood majors alone, and the need for product for new digital platforms will nudge that figure upward over the next few years.

Only game in town

“The only game in town that is growing is global television. Outlets just keep on popping up, while the profit margins in the feature film biz just keep on shrinking,” says Barney Bernhard, U.S. rep of the Midem Organization, the company that puts on the Mip and Mipcom trade shows.

The Mip statistics: About 1,000 companies from 45 countries will pack the Palais and its environs to hawk their wares. The number of stands sold for the market has risen by nearly 14%, to 458, from 403 in 1996. The U.S. once again is sending the biggest delegation, and about 25% of the new exhibitors are from the U.S.

Not only are new outlets driving the market, but Mip-goers say there is a newfound appreciation for the quality of Stateside TV shows, especially in Europe. Series such as “ER,” “NYPD Blue,” “The X-Files,” “The Simpsons” and “Seinfeld” are finding slots in primetime on key broadcasters across the Continent.

Games, talkshows and reality-based fare — from producers and distribbers such as King World, All American and Multimedia (now a unit of Universal) — are finding new leases on life as foreign producers fashion their own local versions.

No more garbage

Those Euros who once found it a la mode to debunk U.S. shows as so much “garbage” suddenly are silent. In their stead are scores of young producers who are eager to imitate U.S. originals and sophisticated TV buyers who know more about Steven Bochco and David Kelley than do their TV station counterparts in Tulsa or Toledo.

And that enthusiasm for U.S. shows is translating into bigger bucks. It no longer is unusual, says one distribber, for a one-hour action drama to command as much as $500,000 to $600,000 an episode overseas and for top-tier sitcoms to go for as much as $250,000 to $300,000 an episode in sales to over-the-air stations.

“Yes, there are a number of U.S. shows in primetime again,” concurs Warner Bros. Intl. TV president Jeffrey Schlesinger, who points to his own company’s “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” as yet another show playing well in primetime abroad.

“Over-the-air broadcasting is a very good business right now,” adds Universal Intl. TV president Armando Nunez Jr., touting his studio’s syndie stalwarts “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” and “Xena: Warrior Princess” and evergreens “Columbo” and “Murder, She Wrote” as strong sellers in key timeslots abroad.

Schlesinger will be fielding for the first time at Mip product from the newly acquired Turner library. The combined Warner and Turner catalog, about 35,000 hours of programming, is the most formidable in the international TV biz, sources say, and may account for a whopping 25% of total U.S. TV sales abroad.

But Mip is not just about program sales. Most of the key U.S. execs have digital broadcasting at the top of their minds as they head for the annual Riviera rendezvous.

The most talked-about digital launch of 1996 — Leo Kirch’s DF1 platform in Germany — has so far sputtered. In fact, the Bavarian TV kingpin may soon try to renegotiate downward the $6 billion 10-year deals he inked in Hollywood. Meanwhile, Japan’s first of three digital platforms, PerfecTV, has failed so far to reach its target of 3 million subscribers.

First things first

Twentieth Century Fox Television Intl. president Mark Kaner puts it all in perspective: “The digital picture is indeed very complex. For one thing, there are not enough entities mass-producing the chips; quality control is lacking. Although we believe the technology will ultimately work, we all tried to run before we could walk.”

Kaner works for what is arguably the most globally minded of U.S. media congloms. His boss Rupert Murdoch already has parlayed his U.K.-based satcaster British Sky Broadcasting into a powerhouse and is in partnerships to launch similar platforms in Latin America, Japan and the U.S.

As for territories where the TV action will be concentrated in 1997, MGM Telecommunications Group president Gary Marenzi ticks off Japan, Spain and the U.K. as hot markets.

In the U.K., Channel 5 has added a wrinkle to the over-the-air broadcast biz, while in Spain and Japan, a number of players are jockeying to form digital alliances.

Now under new corporate ownership, MGM will have its vice chairman Bob Pisano on hand at Mip to take part in discussions on developments in the foreign marketplace. MGM Gold, a spinoff channel based on the studio’s classic film library, already is operating in parts of Asia, and is looking to expand elsewhere.

“Every time we go over to Mip, we uncover more growth and more deals to do,” Marenzi said. Latest area of opportunity: Russia, where a number of fledgling pay TV operators are gearing up and are expected to be on the Croisette.

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