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Modest rebound will ignite new round of buying

The Croisette comes alive this week as the 19th annual Mipcom TV trade show unspools on a newly upbeat note.

Coming off a round of encouraging deals inked over the summer, the Hollywood majors will try to capitalize on that momentum by talking up their newbie fall series, especially dramas like “The Handler,” “Joan of Arcadia,” “Tarzan,” “Threat Matrix,” “Karen Sisco,” “The Lyon’s Den” and “Las Vegas.”

Because the dates of Mipcom are slightly later this year (Oct. 10-14), primetime ratings from the U.S. should be available on most of the new crop, a useful tool for foreign buyers trying to decide if a particular series is catching on Stateside or not.

The fall mart also takes place as several long-lingering storm clouds show signs of breaking up and scudding off.

“For the first time in a while, we don’t have a cloud hanging directly over our heads,” says CBS Intl. prexy Armando Nunez. “The economy, the war, SARS, threats of terrorism have all seemingly receded. And it looks like the advertising market in most countries abroad is starting to rebound.” Deals for CBS shows are already in the works.

Disney’s international TV prexy David Hulbert says the Mouse House is finalizing deals in some key Euro territories for “Threat Matrix,” “Line of Fire” and “Hope and Faith.”

“Sales this early — before the shows have even aired in the U.S. — are unusual, so I guess this reflects well on the prospects for each of the shows.

If you look back to some of our biggest shows, like “Alias” and “Scrubs,” sales really only kicked in after Mipcom, so I believe that signs are positive for our new shows.”

On a similarly positive note, Paramount Intl. TV prexy Gary Marenzi says his sales team has enjoyed its best summer in years. Though there are still pockets of concern — Japan, Poland and Venezuela among them — Marenzi’s finding ways to place programming effectively. Even the traditionally tricky British and once tortuous Russian markets have become lively of late.

In short, Hollywood suppliers as a whole are more bullish about their crop of new and returning shows than at any time in the last five years. Their biggest challenge: trying to edge up the price per episode on skeins to staunch the red ink of production costs.

A benchmark they may want to keep in mind is the dough racked up by “CSI” abroad.

“If indie distribber Alliance Atlantis is managing to bring in a figure north of $800,000 an episode for each of its ‘CSI’ franchises, and does so without the advantage of feature films to dangle in front of prospective buyers, then the Hollywood suppliers should each be able to do the same for at least one of their new shows,” says one analyst of the foreign TV scene.

Not that price hikes are easy to obtain from picky, sometimes penny-pinching foreign acquisition execs.

The Hollywood majors raked in $5.4 billion last year from movie and TV sales to overseas station outlets, free and pay, and that figure is not expected to rise more than a couple of percentage points in the foreseeable future.

As Fox Intl. TV exec VP Marion Edwards points out: Reality, talk and local shows are eating up increasing numbers of slots on stations oversea s, relegating all but the most-sought-after series to the fringes of skeds.

Looking beyond the confines of the Croisette, she adds, copyright theft is undermining the ability of suppliers to exploit product through all windows.

Still, marketgoers are determined to make the most of the fall sales bazaar, which is one of the key gatherings on the global market calendar. Some developments bode well:

  • The troubled Teutonic TV picture has cleared up and the remnants of the once mighty Kirch empire have been disposed. The first signs at ProSiebenSat. 1 under media mogul Haim Saban are positive, with what’s been hailed as an astute hire in Guillaume de Posch as his chief operating officer.

  • U.S. spinoff channels as varied as E!, MGM and Universal Suspense continue to be launched in one territory or another at lower take-up costs, the latest being Sony’s actioner AXN across Eastern Europe. Sony senior exec VP Andy Kaplan says there are a lot of growth opportunities in the foreign channel biz.

  • Pay TV platforms in Italy, Spain and Germany are getting a new lease on life after years of uncertainty and fragility. Better a single strong player in each market than two weak ones is how Hollywood execs rationalize the developments on that front.

  • The reality craze shows little signs of a letting up, with proliferating variations being cooked up on all the basic genres. Agents such as William Morris’ Mark Itkin, who reps top nonfiction players on both sides of the Atlantic, will be on hand to comb through projects to find the next “Queer Eye” or “Trading Places.” He says the hottest genre is comedy reality and formats based on leisure-time activities.

  • Local production efforts by Hollywood majors are beginning to make money for the parent companies back home. Latest example: Sony licensed rights to Colombian telenovela “Betty la fea,” transforming it into an ugly duckling story in Hindi and airing it on Sony Entertainment TV in India, where it’s already gaining audience share.

  • Meanwhile, for indie distribs at Mipcom, the biz never gets easier, the recipe for success varying little: find a niche, keep overhead low, be flexible on terms and, well, pray for luck.

“It’s still an on-the-road kind of job being an indie,” says Carlton America CEO Stephen Davis, who has clocked tens of thousands of frequent-flier miles this past year.

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