Mixed signals

Media stox fizzle though shows still sizzle

Wariness will be the watchword as the U.S. contingent wings its way to the French Riviera for the 38th annual Mip TV trade show in Cannes.

The five-day bazaar (April 2-6) is a key stop on the global TV sales circuit and will attract some 11,000 participants, among them 1,200 exhibiting companies and 2,500 program buyers.

However sunny the skies in Cannes, though, the backdrop for the Riviera rendezvous is somber. A dip in U.S. TV ad revenues and a downturn in the stock market could easily spill over into Europe and the rest of the world. If that happens, the program acquisitions budgets of foreign broadcasters could eventually feel the pinch.

Says market vet Brian Frons: “Yes, we are concerned about the advertising markets in several territories and we’re trying to share that conservatism with our seller clients.

“That means,” he goes on, “prices for shows are coming down or flattening in some cases. In others, it means that we’re getting more runs of shows, or more flexibility in the use of library material.”

Frons, who is based in London, is senior VP of programming for pan-Euro station group SBS, which boasts outlets in Scandinavia, the Benelux and Eastern Europe. His company just reported $80 million in losses for 2000, mostly due to unsuccessful e-ventures.

U.S. program suppliers — who are traditionally the largest contingent at the annual mart — arrive on the Croisette amid growing fears of Hollywood writers and actors strikes this summer. Work stoppages could effectively mean no new series for fall– and that would in turn mean no new shows to license abroad.

As Frons and others suggest, prices for TV shows probably peaked two years ago and have leveled off or even slipped since.

Other signs of tougher times:

  • Warner Bros. has elected not to exhibit at Mip — citing belt-tightening measures instituted as a result of its merger with America Online.

  • Germany continues to be a cantankerous market, with the latest snag being a lawsuit by commercial broadcaster RTL against Universal over a massive output deal with the studio that was inked in 1996.

  • Last year’s dot-com debacle means that Mip’s so-called Dot.com Village of exhibitors has been decimated, with many fewer new-media types likely to make the trek.

  • Universal has just lost its TV chairman Blair Westlake — an indirect result of another ongoing megamerger, this one with France’s Vivendi. Universal Pictures prexy Rick Finkelstein will be on hand at Mip to get a handle on the international TV market, which he will oversee.

  • MGM and NBC are in the throes of a negotiation wherein the Lion will take over the distribution of the Peacock’s TV output — another sign of how hard it is for any U.S. company, even a major network, to exact adequate license fees from foreign broadcasters without the leverage of feature films.

  • While the first wave of reality shows has just about played itself out, no one knows what’s next in that program area — and whether audience interest can be sustained.

  • For the first time ever, attendance at the market will be flat with last year, and there’s no waiting list for booth space among Yank distribbers. Quite simply, caveat vendor: Being a small or non-aligned seller is not for the faint of heart.

Despite all these flashing yellow lights, the five-day mart will not necessarily be a downbeat affair.

Columbia TriStar TV Intl. prexy Michael Grindon opines that the current economic slowdown would have to have both “depth and breadth” before it would seriously impact international sales.

Hearst Entertainment prexy Bruce Paisner even points out that “fee-based TV could do very well in a downturn” since folks often tend to stay close to home when the economy softens.

Moreover, the Hollywood heavyweights churn out such a volume of product that even though network series won’t be greenlit until May, they still have a lot to offer buyers in April.

Take 20th Century Fox TV Intl., which is in pole position as the leading supplier of product to U.S. outlets. The division’s exec VP Marion Edwards says Mip is ideal for “alternative fare,” and quickly rattles off an impressive list of shows she’ll be fielding, from “Twisted Tales” for Animal Planet to “Biographies” for A&E.

In addition, Edwards is selling formats of “Temptation Island,” one of the hottest U.S.-originated reality skeins.

Several major studios are pointing to their midseason replacements, which are just debuting on the U.S. networks.

Universal TV’s co-prexy Steve Jarmus thinks “First Years,” a young-skewing series about young lawyers, should catch on abroad.

Grindon boasts “What about Joan?,” toplining Joan Cusack for ABC, while Warner Bros. Intl. TV prexy Jeffrey Schlesinger is hopeful pilots from top talents like John Wells and Chuck Lorre will pique foreign buyers at the L.A. Screenings in June.

Saban Intl. prexy Stan Golden says his company boasts “one of our strongest slates ever,” referring to a half-dozen shows that target kids or tweeners.

“We already know what’s been greenlit by the nets in the kids area, so Mip is an ideal launching pad for us.”

And don’t forget about movies.

“They’re a great way to call attention to your overall output,” says U’s Jarmus. His company is licensing “Gladiator” and “Hannibal” in foreign markets.

Similarly, Edwards says she’ll be talking up her studio’s upcoming slate, which includes “Planet of the Apes” and “Moulin Rouge.”

And DreamWorks worldwide TV topper Hal Richardson has just returned from a Euro trip to talk up his company’s latest pic “Shrek,” which hits the bigscreen this spring. He also has foreign on the Tom Hanks’ hit “Castaway.”

“We’re now delivering the level of product DreamWorks founders aimed for — nine to 12 features a year — and, despite some split rights, most of our foreign station clients are happy with what they’re getting.”

Richardson inked free and pay TV output deals with major players in almost all key foreign territories back in the heady days of 1996 — and is just now beginning the renegotiation process, starting with the U.K.

Finally, Hollywood library product continues to find outlets abroad as more flanker channels come onstream.

“Our library is becoming more and more valuable abroad. We’re selling deeper and deeper (into that library) each year, for higher prices,” says MGM worldwide TV prexy Jim Griffiths.

The Lion has managed to unencumber its rich back catalog in almost all major territories, and is starting to enjoy regular revenue growth from its exploitation.

Griffiths will also use Mip to assess opportunities for further channel launches abroad after debuts in Israel and Turkey last year.

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