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Mips clicked as small screen turned big biz

Tube markets were much smaller than today

Like many businesses in which Hollywood has its hands, the international television markets move through cycles.

Weekly Variety has long tracked those ups and downs through its network of foreign correspondents, and most comprehensively during trade shows like Mip and Mipcom.

(Nowadays those two markets belong to Reed Midem, like Variety a Reed Elsevier company. Back then ownership and management were in the hands of the French, specifically one Bernard Chevry, who later became mayor of Cannes.)

In May 1978, the TV biz was in expansive mode, even though most nations still controlled TV through tightly monitored state-run pubcasters and commercial players were few and far between.

That year, according to Variety‘s coverage, Belgium’s French-language pubcaster RTBF was for the first time selling shows for cash. Until then, its charter had forbidden it to do anything other than exchange shows with other nets.

The hottest show at that market was the U.S. miniseries “Holocaust,” which tallied a hefty-for-those-days $550,000 sale to the BBC.

Still, the banner headline that year reflected the new spirit blowing across the Mediterranean: “Worldwide TV programs put zip in Mip.”

Three full pages in the May 3 issue were devoted to stories about different players, what they were buying and selling and what they were thinking of co-producing.

There were a lot of differences vs. today’s Mipcom market, which soon will convene on the Riviera for its 21st edition.

The most obvious difference is how much smaller the event was — with 2,500 reps then vs. the current 12,000 or so who show up these days. The number of programs screened — and in those days folks actually set up video projectors and looked at product before buying it — was reckoned by Variety at 2,850; today the number of new shows on offer doubtless exceeds 20,000.

It’s also striking how piecemeal the market was, with Spaniards, Belgians, Aussies and especially the British making as much of an impact as Americans.

The dates of Mip back then were not conducive for Hollywood sellers: Their new pilots were unveiled just three weeks later in L.A., so they had little new to offer buyers in early May.

Others, though, made the most of Mip.

Fremantle’s Paul Talbot, who had acquired the Goodson-Todson gameshow library, busily licensed rights to localize “The Price Is Right” and “The Better Sex” across Europe, marking the first global format deals, while Brazil’s Globo was elated by unexpected interest in its telenovelas — an enthusiasm that continues today.

Most product that graced the Croisette in those years, however, was much more high-minded. Indeed, the world was still four years away from going bananas over “Dallas” and “Dynasty.”

The biggest project clamoring for financing then was a 26-parter pushed by the Brits called “The Times of London,” which was to focus on such “hot” topics as that paper’s treatment of the Crimean War and the Congress of Berlin. (Ratings were clearly not the point.)

As for the “Holocaust” mini, it was being sold by an up-and-coming Yank company called Worldvision, which would go on to mint millions abroad with “Dallas” and “Little House on the Prairie.” Its eventual fate was similar to that of many other indie distribs: It was bought by a major studio, in this case Paramount, in the late ’90s, and its product is now part of the CBS Paramount catalog.

Another oddity of the market in the ’70s was the presence of so many TV station general managers from the U.S. (Meredith, Outlet, ABC, among them). Said Variety TV editor Larry Michie:

“There’s a strong possibility that in a year or two they and others like them will be acquiring foreign product.”

Michie was right — it just took 20-odd years for the change to happen, when reality formats came crashing across to the Atlantic to U.S. shores.

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