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Mipcom 2003 sees light at end of TV tunnel?

Confab notices new biz models for selling to the cost conscious

CANNES — The feeling that a depressed international TV program market may indeed have bottomed out was cause for celebration along the Croisette in Cannes over the weekend as choosier buyers and embattled sellers convened for Mipcom 2003.

“No one’s popping champagne corks, but the fundamentals are turning positive,” Midem chief exec Paul Zilk told Daily Variety.

Lean times have weeded out many of the smaller players and forced even established brands to think more creatively about how they package and sell to broadcasters operating with tighter budgets.

The Hollywood majors, typically the most confident of Riviera sellers, are settling into a new rhythm of business that involves tougher battles with pay TV buyers and only modest — if any — annual growth.

The confab’s first three days of program trading bore witness to some new business models for selling to far choosier and cost-conscious buyers. Warner Bros. TV unveiled its Kids WB-branded program block for which it will accept both cash and barter, while niche distrib National Geographic worked to widen its own market by segueing its brand into kids docu and animation production.

“Buyers have changed over the years … they’ve grown more conscious of rights and windows and are more sophisticated about ratings,” Sony Pictures Intl. TV prexy Michael Grindon said.

“Everything is more professional and focused; buyers know exactly what they want,” said Simone Halberstadt Harari, prexy and CEO of France’s Tele Images Intl. There are lots of people who haven’t bought for 18 months and program stocks are now running out, she says, “and people are starting to buy again although globally prices have come down.”

‘Hysterical industry’

Walt Disney Intl. TV prexy David Hulbert agreed that lean times have made all suppliers more professional about how they do business, though he believes rumors of the market’s utter demise have been exaggerated. “This is a very hysterical industry … it’s never really been as bad as many believed. There was a bad advertising dip in 2000 in Europe, but we’re now moving back onto a more modest but steady track.”

“Today, you can’t neglect cable channels, or say Croatia isn’t worth bothering over,” said Frank Soloveicik, head of distribution for France’s Lagardare Active, now one of Europe’s largest TV distributors.

Poor crop

While News Corp. president and COO Peter Chernin pointed out that U.S. shows now constitute barely 3% of European primetime, key buyers still trust top quality U.S. fare to support their own quality brands. However, this fall’s crop of new network series hasn’t yet struck a chord with buyers, though some — such as “Nip/Tuck” and Sony’s “Joan of Arcadia” — were getting good buzz in the market’s early days.

“It’s not a good vintage,” a European buyer said.

Not surprisingly, cost-effective reality formats seem to be running strong, with Fremantle pushing Simon Cowell’s latest audience participation matchmaking show, “Cupid.”

“Reality dating-type shows were becoming predictable,” said Cowell, who hopes that allowing audiences to vote on the perfect matchup will make the format more engaging worldwide in the same way the element proved crucial to “Pop Idol’s” success. “The more you trust the public, the more you get the right ending,” Cowell said.

Unusual reality skeins

Among the more unusual formats being offered up on the reality circuit this season are “Couples on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” from France’s Adventure Line Prods.; Talkback Production’s “How Clean Is Your House”; and Endemol’s new “Extreme” home makeover show.

DVD rights were also doing a brisk trade, thanks to a boom in DVD players internationally and a new interest in packaged TV series. At a conference Saturday, former Warner Bros. video chief Warren Lieberfarb noted that “Friends” has already generated $400 million in sales so far. Worldwide, he said consumers will spend $30 billion this year buying and renting DVDs. Whether that ultimately corrodes or encourages more TV viewing, Lieberfarb believes TV production should benefit enormously from the proliferation of DVD.

Lieberfarb was feted with the Mipcom DVD Lifetime Achievement Award. He championed the little-known technology 10 years ago and managed to hammer out a global agreement whereby one standard came to be accepted by all the players.

Japan broadcaster/producer NHK also reported heightened interest in its high-definition programming from U.S. buyers.

(Alison James, Ed Meza and Eileen Tasca contributed to this report.)

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