Mip’s Hong Kong swan song

Asian market begins last stand before Singapore stint

HONG KONG — A record 2,000 participants, including some 700 buyers, have descended on Hong Kong for the fourth edition of the Mip Asia television market, running today through Saturday. They won’t be back — at least not to the former British colony.

In the ongoing struggle between Hong Kong and Singapore for supremacy as the center of the region’s television industry, Hong Kong has suffered a setback with the decision to move the mart to Singapore in 1998.

In addition, the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Assn. of Asia Conference and Exhibition, which runs parallel to Mip Asia, is also moving from Hong Kong to Singapore for 1998.

Reed Midem Organization, which organizes Mip Asia, said the plan had always been to make the market a roving event, spending three years at any one venue. Midem’s television division director, Rene Peres, told reporters in Hong Kong that Singapore offered a “cost effective” alternative to Hong Kong — a city that has been known to make credit cards and company accountants tremble in fear.

In diplomatic mode, Peres did not rule out a return to Hong Kong in the future, but word in the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center and in the local press is that the city has simply priced itself out of the market.

Keeping costs down is likely to be a major topic of conversation over the next three days, given the current economic crisis gripping Asia. In recent months, devaluation has seen some currencies lose around 35% of their value and television production houses are already reporting that some cash-strapped Asian broadcasters are turning to reruns rather than acquiring product, for which they haven’t got the coin.

“The situation in Korea is particularly worrying,” noted Keiko Bang, president of Hong Kong-based indie production company Bang Prods. “Korea already had a cable crisis, now the networks just aren’t buying new programming.”

Despite an explosion in broadcasting capacity in the region — Malaysia has seen its number of broadcasters leap from three in 1995 to nearer 40 today — the feeling among TV execs prepping for the mart was that many of the new production houses that have sprung up to meet growing demand will fold within a few months as they come to terms with the reality of their own under-financing and the inability of the new broadcasters to fund local production.

According to Henry Watson, director of programming acquisition and development for DirecTV Intl. in Japan, “There is certainly going to be some consolidation and shakedown in production.”

Ironically, if the cash crunch continues, some production execs argue that it will favor local fare over acquisition of international product. Speaking on an “Asia to Asia Programming” panel Dec. 3, Firdaus Kharas, managing director of producer UTV Intl., noted, “Hopefully the gap between local and imported product will be reduced as currency issues make imports more expensive.”

But Kharas admitted that the change won’t be seen overnight, as imports still cost significantly less than local production. Kharas reported that in Malaysia, production costs per hour are running at around 60,000 ringgits ($16,000) compared to acquisition prices of nearer $555 per hour.

One of the few Asian economies to have so far weathered the financial storm that has broken over the region is China. With its 1.2 billion population and developing TV industry, China is still seen as the region’s El Dorado, although wannabe partners or sellers remain uncertain how to crack the fortune cookie.

With this in mind, the Mip Asia organizers have put together a series of conferences aimed at throwing light on doing business with the Asian giant.

China-watchers say that patience will be the biggest asset for those trying to pry coin out of China. And reticence on the part of Chinese TV execs to speak off the cuff — without the safety net of referring questions upstairs — means that more questions are being posed than answered.

One thing was clear going into Mip Asia: The American heavyweights continue to shy away from taking the kind of profile they have at such international television markets as NATPE, Mip TV and Mipcom.

Several senior studio execs are in town — Paramount’s new international television prexy Gary Marenzi was seen doing dim sum at the traditional pre-mart opening chowdown — but the majority haven’t taken stand space and will be doing business on the hoof.

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