Wary Euros, ‘Net gains grip MIP

Demand for American product has lessened at Intl. TV confab

FROM MIP TV 2000
As the Hollywood players wing their way to the French Riviera for the annual Mip TV tradeshow (April 10-14), they find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place.

Top U.S. program suppliers (Warners, Paramount, Fox, Universal, Columbia and Disney) have to grapple with an increasingly intractable “old media” problem — the dwindling availability of primetime slots on Euro stations for their shows — and with a newfangled conundrum: How to exploit program rights on the Internet.

While these Hollywood heavyweights rake in some $4 billion a year from foreign sales of their movies and series to TV outlets abroad, the growth rate has slowed to a sorry single-digit percentage.

That’s mainly because the key stations across Europe have relegated even top-tier imported series — from “ER” and “The X-Files” to “Seinfeld” and “Friends” — to off-peak hours. Many U.S. shows now go begging in major territories.

“There’s simply not an insatiable desire for American product anymore,” Fox Intl. TV exec VP Marion Edwards admitted. “Broadcasters will pay a surprising amount of money for shows they really want, but not a lot for everything else.”

The problem is that the U.S. players are producing more product for more domestic TV outlets than ever before, she added.

In other words, Mip is increasingly a buyer’s market, with competitive bidding for U.S. shows an increasing rarity. From Melbourne to Munich to Moscow, it’s local shows that have TV audiences enthralled.

“We’re really under the gun to find new ways to skin what has become a rather tired cat,” one veteran U.S. supplier said in summing up the problem.

Internet rights

As for licensing rights on the Internet, most Hollywood players caution that there are still many knots to be worked out before the ‘Net becomes a revenue stream for program distributors.

For one thing, there are simply too few World Wide Web users out there to make a wholesale shift of programming away from foreign broadcast outlets to the ‘Net financially viable.

“Broadband does not yet mean broadcast. The audiences on the Internet for our kind of programming are simply not large enough,” said Columbia TriStar Intl. TV prexy Michael Grindon. “We have significant broadcast partners throughout the world, and I suspect that the obstacles to licensing rights on the Internet are not insignificant. It will be a tortured process.”

Grindon and others opine that they are at least a couple of years away from Internet deals.

So, for most of Hollywood’s heavyweights, Mip has become essentially “a mop-up market” for programs left unsold during the past season. Fall 2000 series won’t be unveiled for foreign clients until early June.

The five-day Mip market — still the granddaddy of tradeshows for the international TV biz — is also a good barometer of developments on the European front. And this go-round, there are a number of intriguing developments that the 10,500 delegates in Cannes will be taking advantage of or talking about. Among them:

  • On the programming front, the next big thing on the foreign horizon is video-on-demand (VOD) — and it’s already kicking and screaming in the U.K.

    Hollywood majors Warners, Sony and Disney have quietly inked non-exclusive deals for their movies and TV shows with both Yes TV and Home Choice, the two main players in this new ballgame in Britain. The deals are not yet for big bucks — but they’re one step closer to full-fledged exploitation of Web rights.

    “In the next year, we’ll see this new VOD business explode across Europe,” said Warner Bros. Intl. TV prexy Jeffrey Schlesinger.

  • Distribs will be dallying with dot-coms, trying to come up with ways to market their wares on the Web or concoct interactive elements for their shows.

    While Mip organizers have made sure that dot-coms of all descriptions dot the Croisette, most of the interface between traditional Hollywood players and these Web companies will be practical rather than portentous.

    Expect announcements about online marketing initiatives and interactive programming but nothing significant regarding the licensing of program rights to Internet players. That larger issue will simply hang over the Riviera rendezvous like a distant rainbow.

  • While they’re being squeezed out of broadcast slots abroad, U.S. companies are spinning off whole channels abroad at a record pace.

    Cosmopolitan has launched in Iberia; Kermit has jumped into India; Playboy is targeting various Euro territories; and Fox Kids is ramping up in Asia. Narrower niches and more localized programming to fill these round-the-clock services are the latest twist on channel launches.

    Several U.S. players, including Playboy and the History Channel, will be making channel launch announcements during Mip.

  • Viacom, which has just swallowed distribs Worldvision and Rysher, is about to fold in CBS, which itself just finished digesting King World. The resulting behemoth will boast the largest library of programming in the world.

  • Cash-laden Euro players will be looking for more cross-border and transatlantic deals.

    The recent Telefonica/Endemol hook-up and the EM.TV buyout of the Jim Henson Co. are likely just the beginning of a trend. Rumors of a move by France’s Vivendi to link up with Universal should also be food for thought.

  • A year after it touted a much-ballyhooed merger with rival CME, pan-Euro station group SBS will be back in town to trumpet its sellout to broadband player UPC.

  • Finally, the traffic in transatlantic programming is beginning to be two-way. U.S. networks are licensing and localizing a clutch of wacky reality and gameshows from Europe — “Big Brother,” “Survivor” and “The Bus,” among others.

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