Global TV mart could be affected by U.S. strikes, ad woes

Wariness will be the watchword as U.S. TV sellers wing their way this weekend to the French Riviera for the 38th annual Mip TV trade show in Cannes, which opens Monday.

The five-day bazaar (April 2-6), a key stop on the global TV sales circuit, 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 is already spilling over into Europe and the rest of the world.

If the situation worsens, foreign broadcasters could eventually feel the pinch, affecting their program acquisitions budgets.

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

Other signs of tougher times:

  • Prices for U.S. TV shows abroad probably peaked two years ago and have leveled off or even slipped since then.

  • Germany continues to be a cantankerous market; the latest snag is commercial broadcaster RTL’s lawsuit against Universal over a massive output deal inked with the studio in 1996.

  • International powerhouse Warner Bros. has elected not to exhibit at Mip, citing belt-tightening measures instituted as a result of its merger with AOL.

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

  • 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 U.S. distribbers as consolidation has thinned the ranks of mid-size players.

  • The take-up of broadband services and the licensing of Hollywood product on the Internet may be delayed by a lack of capital and unresolved piracy concerns.

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

Grindon upbeat

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

Most important, the Hollywood heavyweights churn out such a volume and range of product, he explained, that even though network series won’t be greenlit until May, these players still have a lot to offer buyers in April.

Take Twentieth Century Fox TV Intl., currently in pole position as the leading supplier of product to U.S. outlets.

The division’s exec VP Marion Edwards said Mip is ideal for “alternative fare,” and quickly rattled off an impressive list of shows she’ll be fielding. That list includes everything from “Twisted Tales” for Animal Planet to segment of “Biography” for A&E.

Tempting formats

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

Similarly punchy reality concepts originating in Europe — with titles such as “Shafted,” “Extreme Date” and “Single Girls” — could also generate heat on the Croisette.

Several major studios are pointing to their midseason series, which are just now debuting on the U.S. nets.

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

CTIT’s Grindon boasts “What About Joan,” toplining Joan Cusack for ABC. He’s also enthusiastic about his company’s many local production efforts abroad. These include “Tequila & Bonetti,” a remake of an old U.S. series that’s produced in Italy in English and airs on Mediaset’s Italia 1. CTIT is selling the show to other territories in Europe.

And Disney’s international TV division, under prexy David Hulbert, will for the first time be packaging six of its animated hits — including “Toy Story” and “Pocahontas” — for foreign TV buyers. Idea is to sell them as event programming for holiday periods.

Kidvid power

Among the few remaining indie sellers, Saban Intl. prexy Stan Golden said his company boasts “one of our strongest slates ever,” referring to a half-dozen shows that target kids or tweenies.

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

And don’t forget about movies.

“They’re a great way to call attention to your overall output,” said U’s Jarmus. His company is licensing Oscar’s best pic “Gladiator” and current B.O. blockbuster “Hannibal” in foreign markets.

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

As for DreamWorks, the company’s worldwide TV topper, Hal Richardson, has just returned from a Euro trip to talk up “Shrek,” which hits the bigscreen in May.

“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 from us.”

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.

Meanwhile, MGM has just inked a multiyear arrangement with NBC whereby the Lion will take over the distribution of the Peacock’s TV output — beginning with Mip.

Packaging film, TV

MGM worldwide TV prexy Jim Griffiths said the deal is “a win-win situation” in which the Lion will now be able to offer “a full range of product” to foreign clients. Packaging NBC series like “Will & Grace” and “Providence” with the Lion’s movies should provide for higher prices for those TV series.

The deal is reckoned as a savvy arrangement for the two parties, but it is also a sign of how hard it is for any U.S. company, even a Big Four network, to exact adequate license fees from foreign broadcasters without the leverage of feature films.

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

Universal, for example, recently inked a deal in Britain with niche channel U.K. Gold for “A-Team” reruns and with Canal Jimmy in France for the black and white episodes of “The Munsters.”

And the Lion, which has managed to regain control of its rich catalog in almost all major territories, is starting to enjoy regular revenue growth from its exploitation.

“Our back catalog is becoming more and more valuable abroad. We’re selling deeper and deeper into that library each year — for higher prices,” said MGM’s Griffiths.

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