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Reality is setting in for TV buyers, sellers

Buying power lessened due to currency plunge

Thanks to a badly battered euro and a late start to the fall season Stateside, next week’s Mipcom TV trade show in Cannes is likely to “get real”: Sales of scripted U.S. series will be slow while interest in reality formats — from wherever — will intensify.

The event, which unspools Oct. 2-6, is one of a trio of annual sales bazaars that are considered de rigueurin the international TV biz.

Now in its 19th year, Mipcom typically has been focused on new drama series and sitcoms coming out of Hollywood. Not so this time round.

The euro has been pummeled in the last few months, reducing the buying power of European station clients, or at least providing them a ready-made excuse not to finalize deals for Hollywood shows.

In addition, U.S. TV sellers will have little ratings data to demonstrate that their new shows are catching on with viewers as the fall season only gets going Stateside mid-October.

Reality checks in

What everyone will be talking about on the Cannes Croisette will not be the latest American scripted series but the wave of reality programming that has washed across TV screens practically everywhere, but especially in the U.S.

It has been more than 30 years since shows originating in Europe — currently it’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” “Survivor” and “Big Brother” — have captured the American imagination, reshaping the U.S. network primetime schedules and opening up two-way transatlantic programming traffic.

Not since distribber D.L. Taffner imported Britcom formats that morphed into “All in the Family” and “Sanford and Son” in the ’70s has there been such a fuss over Euro programming concepts.

And the two-way traffic is not just about programming. Euro coin, especially deutsche marks, have poured into Tinseltown over the last year, opening up the likelihood that American films and TV shows will eventually be more international in flavor and storyline as well as in financing.

The import of reality formats culminated over the summer with the unprecedented ratings success of “Survivor” on CBS, while the influx of Euro cash climaxed in the pending takeover of one of Hollywood’s seven major players, Seagram’s Universal, by France’s Vivendi.

Euro skew

“In short, the business is becoming truly global in its financing and in its creativity,” says one international TV veteran. For Mipcom, that means that the center of gravity has shifted more toward Europe and away from the U.S.

Twentieth Century Fox Intl. TV exec VP Marion Edwards believes that the global market will benefit long term from the exchange opened up between the U.S. and Europe.

“The flood of Continental-originated reality shows may open other doors for Euro sitcoms and dramas to make their way Stateside,” she says.

Edwards also points out that it’s no longer in any case strictly about “them and us”: All of the U.S. majors have financial interests in various Euro broadcast, cable or satellite operations. They also have local production operations in various Euro territories and around-the-clock satellite channels beaming a mix of U.S.- and Euro-originated fare.

“Never has the business been so interconnected,” says one international TV veteran. “What happens on one side of the Atlantic inevitably now impacts the other.”

As for how long the love affair with reality programming will last worldwide, most U.S. suppliers — whose most lucrative sales items are feature films and scripted drama series — are confident that the romance with reality will fade within a year or two.

“Look at newsmagazines,” says Columbia TriStar Intl. TV president Michael Grindon. “They were hot for a while on the U.S. networks and then faded in popularity. These things are cyclical.”

American movies and series — at least those that can qualify as genuine hits — will continue to be sold for top dollar abroad, leading U.S. suppliers concur.

Choice titles

Best bets for Euro buyers who are in the market for U.S. shows: Warner Bros.’ “The Fugitive” will probably get some takers; ditto for Fox’s “Dark Angel,” Par’s “Titans” and Columbia’s “The Street.”

Disney Intl. TV prexy David Hulbert, who is a Brit and based in London, says that despite worries over the euro, top terrestrial TV stations in Europe are very healthy and the revenue base, in general, is growing.

Pay TV is prospering, local production is booming and the digital revolution is opening up all kinds of multiplexing possibilities. There is no reason, in other words, why the U.S. majors shouldn’t continue to enjoy an annual uptick in revenues from their foreign TV activities, he suggests.

The Disney Channel in the U.K. will be splitting up into four separate feeds catering to four distinct target audiences — just one indication of how programming can be sliced and diced to create revenue streams.

Six major Hollywood congloms — Warners, Fox, Viacom, Disney, Sony and Universal — increasingly account for the lion’s share of revenues in the international TV business.

In dollar terms, that means they will collectively rake in $4.5 billion to $5 billion this year, more than the rest of the world combined will pocket from TV exports. The next biggest exporter of TV shows, the U.K., racked up programming and merchandising sales worth some $530 million last year.

As for the level of participation at Mipcom, latest stats from event organizers the Reed Midem Organization suggest that overall attendance will be up between 10% and 15%, bringing total attendance to almost 12,000. Despite media consolidation, the number of exhibiting companies is up 15% over last year to 2,131, while the number of registered program buyers has hit 2,880, up 12%. Almost 1,000 are new buyers.

The usual hefty U.S. contingent — dominated by Hollywood heavyweights — will be buttressed by a potpourri of dot-coms, hoping to get a better handle on the content biz.

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