Creative new programs fight for exposure in tough times

HOLLYWOOD — The 17th annual Mipcom will not be lacking in suspense.

The fall TV trade show — arguably the most important gathering for the international small-screen biz — was already bracing from the impact of a worldwide advertising slump. And a strong dollar makes huge outlays for U.S. shows unlikely.

If those problems weren’t enough to dampen spirits and tighten purse strings, the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on Sept. 11 have done the rest.

Heightened security, long lines, and less glitz are likely to greet the jittery 10,000 delegates who are expected to show up for the five-day Cannes bazaar (Oct. 8-12).

Says Twentieth Century Fox Intl. TV exec VP Marion Edwards: “There’s a general sense that American attendance at Mipcom will be voluntary. People are concerned that, if something else happens, they could get stranded in Europe.”

Making for another dislocation in the market, the American network schedules have been pushed back a crucial week because of the attacks, meaning that there will be fewer ratings figures to tout.

Sellers typically use that tool to reassure overseas buyers that a particular U.S. net-

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work show has staying power. Without such corroborating data, foreign buyers could simply decide to wait a little longer or not buy at all.

Still, all the Hollywood majors will man exhibition stands on the floor of the Cannes Palais. Yanks are once again the single largest contingent at Mipcom (25% of the total) — and by far the biggest supplier of movies and series to the worldwide market.

It’s just that more and more of the business is concentrated in the hands of a half-dozen Hollywood congloms. And even for them, program sales abroad have gotten much tougher.

Fox’s Edwards summarizes the piquancy of the moment: “What a terrible time for the international market to constrict — when we’re producing so much interesting, original programming from so many sources for so many outlets.”

Edwards points to her company’s upcoming drama “24,” which stars Kiefer Sutherland and has already clocked several deals in key territories.

But her comment applies to a host of other topnotch shows — everything from hits like Warners’ “The West Wing” and HBO’s “The Sopranos” to upcoming contenders like Sony’s “Pasadena” and Paramount’s “Philly.”

She believes that the international lid is being shut on American product just as an unprecedented boom in Yank creativity takes hold.

To be sure, top-tier shows — Fox’s “The X-Files” and Warners “ER” — have raked in $1 million-plus an episode from overseas, but except for a handful of standouts like these, few U.S. dramas ever reach the $700,000-an-episode plateau. Sitcoms rarely gross more than $300,000 an episode from sales outside the U.S.

“It has been turning more toward a buyer’s market and it’s getting tougher and trickier to do deals,” says Paramount Intl. TV prexy Gary Marenzi.

Among the reasons he ticks off: “The dollar is too strong, there are too few feature films to drive packages and too many TV shows to offload.

“We’re putting together and maintaining four times as many deals these days with the same amount of staff,” he adds.

And on the indie front, telepic distrib Carlton America faces hurdles not dissimilar to those of the majors.

“Our buyers are being asked to cut back on their acquisition budgets. They only want shows that can stand on their own and are easily promoted,” says the company’s CEO, Stephen Davis.

Davis can rely on output arrangements in most major territories, but making up the rest of the deficits on his 15 telepics doesn’t get any easier.

“We’re trying to be accommodating,” he says, “but there’s been a significant crimp put in the market.”

As mainstream Euro stations rely more on locally produced shows or cheap reality formats, U.S. suppliers must try to put together deals with upstart cablers and niche players. Only problem: The latter pay considerably less than their mainstream broadcasting brethren.

“We have to put together more deals just to make the same amount of money,” is how Marenzi describes the challenge.

On the pay TV front, too, the Hollywood majors will have their work cut out for them.

Over the next year several of them will be trying to secure healthy renewals of their pay TV output deals with satcaster BSkyB in the U.K. However, scuttlebutt is that the healthy prices paid by BSkyB five years ago just won’t hold up.

Given all these dislocations, expect the $5 billion a year in total revs that American companies rake in annually from TV outlets abroad to remain flat in 2001.

Not that some shows won’t sell.

A clutch of fall sked hopefuls got high marks from foreign buyers at the L.A. Screenings in June. And, of course, many foreign buyers are obliged to take all or a selection of series from the majors’ through multiyear output deals.

Expect some additional station deals for series like CBS’ “Agency,” Disney’s “Alias” and Warner’s “Thieves,” among others. Unless, that is, the fallout from the terrorist attacks means that viewers are turned off by any series that smacks of violence, stylized though it may be.

“It could be that some of these series hit the small screen at the wrong time: Maybe people will just flock to escapist fare. If so, foreign buyers may not want to go against the grain in buying shows that won’t last in the States beyond season one,” says one veteran observer.

Despite that cautionary note, sellers are, on the record at least, an incorrigibly optimistic lot.

“The universal rule is that quality will get you through. That means exercising cost controls while trying to come up with highly branded programming,” says Fremantle Intl. Distribution prexy Catherine Mackay.

She points to her company’s animated series “Mr. Bean” and interactive reality skein “Pop Idols” as indicative of such programming.

And the new kid on the block, Vivendi Universal’s international distribution co-prexy Belinda Menendez, is banking on the impressive run her studio had recently on the feature film side — everything from “The Mummy” and “Jurassic Park III” to “American Pie 2″ and “The Fast and the Furious.” Company plans one of the few parties at Mipcom to hype the latter movie.

Finally, CBS’ international prexy, Armando Nunez, contends that the U.S. suppliers are already dealing with a downturn in the biz — a wrinkle he argues is just part of “a cycle of ups and downs.”

Nunez will be concentrating on sales of the Eye web’s CIA-themed drama “The Agency,” which has Wolfgang Petersen attached as exec producer.

Not closing a deal on the Croisette does not, Nunez cautions, spell ruin for a show’s foreign prospects.

“What’s the rush?” he asks. “If ‘The Agency’ is really good, a few more weeks of ratings might actually be just what we need to get the best price. I can wait.”

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