Mipcom aims to fix int’l TV’s funk

Supply and demand not equal as o'seas biz in a spin

What do Kelsey Grammer, penis puppeteers and Cirque du Soleil have in common? They’ll all be on the Croisette in Cannes next week to tubthump or perform during the 17th annual Mipcom TV trade show.

And a good thing, too, as the international TV biz is in a decided funk, with revenues down for the first time in memory and with nary a bright spot on the horizon.

The 11,000 TV station buyers and program sellers who are expected at the Riviera rendezvous will need cheering up.

“It sucks,” said Twentieth Century Fox Intl. TV prexy Mark Kaner, describing the difficulties facing the industry and particularly the Hollywood majors.

These seven heavyweights account for 90% of the sales by American companies of movies and TV shows to TV outlets abroad, vacuuming $5.4 billion into studio coffers in 2001.

That figure was slightly off from 2000 and is expected to fall further this year, thanks mainly to downturns in the troubled German, Spanish and U.K. markets.

So what’s gone wrong?

For one thing, station program buyers have less to spend and U.S. sellers more to peddle, likely making for a fiercely competitive but frustratingly inconclusive five days at the sales bazaar, which runs Oct. 7-11.

Take the new fall series for the American networks.

U.S. series rejected

Unlike during the early ’90s, when just about everything produced Stateside ended up in huge buyer-take-all packages, overseas buyers are turning their noses up at many U.S. series and even cherrypicking the movies.

“The two or three most sought after shows still command top dollar,” said Kaner’s colleague exec VP Marion Edwards, who heads the sales of Fox movies and series abroad. “But many shows nowadays simply don’t rack up deals sufficient to cover their residual payments.”

For one thing, foreign broadcasters are making their own local dramas and comedies; for another, reality skeins are vying for the same slots the American imports used to secure; and for a third, a downturn in TV station ad revenues has further constricted the acquisition budgets of the foreign stations’ program buyers.

Hence the clamor among American distribs to stick good ratings stories (from their debuts back home) in the faces of foreign buyers during Mipcom.

Some hot-ticket shows have already wrapped up a few deals abroad even before debuting at home.

‘Miami’ makes deals

“CSI: Miami” — the only primetime show distribbed by an indie, Alliance Atlantis — has inked deals with Britain’s Channel Five, France’s TF1 and Germany’s Vox, while Sony has locked a deal for Emmy winner “The Shield” with Britain’s Channel 5.

Other likely prospects abroad include Warner’s “Everwood,” Universal’s “Monk” and MGM’s “American Dreams.”

(For his part, Grammer will be on hand to promote Hallmark-produced telepic “Mr. St. Nick,” in which he stars, while the puppeteers will be there to promote TV sales of their hit play, which is being sold by Canada’s Chum TV. The Cirque will turn somersaults in honor of CBC. )

‘Challenging’ market

“The market is definitely challenging,” said Warner Bros. Intl. TV prexy Jeffrey Schlesinger, pointing to the German market as particularly tricky.

Flights to Munich have recently been jam-packed with Hollywood TV execs: They’re all trying to figure out what they can salvage from the ruins of the bankrupt Kirch Group, which defaulted on several hundred million dollars in output deal installments to the majors.

And then there’s Teutonic pay TV.

Along with four other Hollywood studios, Warners is trying to tie up a deal with the newly revamped Premiere paybox.

Fox, Universal and DreamWorks have recently renewed deals with Premiere, albeit for 15%-20% less than they might have hoped. Their current mantra: “We have to do whatever it takes to make sure Premiere has a chance to succeed.”

Out in the German cold

As in other major territories where former rival payboxes are merging, one or two Hollywood studios are likely to be left out in the German cold now that the feevee has vowed not to gorge on unneeded product.

That means sitting out for a year, or two or three, without revenues coming in from that once-lucrative market.

The same could happen in Italy once the merger between payboxes Telepiu and Stream is finalized and output deals with the majors variously rejigged, scaled down or simply not renewed. Ditto for Spain, where the two rival cash-strapped services are once again talking about joining forces.

Meanwhile, in the U.K., satcaster BSkyB is sitting in the catbird seat, toying with whether to renew all or just a handful of its output deals with major Hollywood suppliers.

Thus, whatever fun is had at the various pours, parties and gabfests — Hallmark’s Robert Halmi Sr. is being feted, as is 50-year-old Canuck pubcaster CBC — the fun will serve only to mask the general malaise hanging over the market.

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