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Banks, bombs and ‘Betty’

Stations are willing to pay big bucks to lock up a likely hit

Reshaping media is the buzz concept that will define the 22nd annual Mipcom TV trade show in Cannes next week, as a record 12,000 participants trek to the Riviera resort to wheel and deal in programming rights.

Hollywood is fielding an impressive array and range of new TV series — from Disney’s telenovela-inspired “Ugly Betty” to Warners’ bank robbery drama “The Nine,” from Fox’s courtroom caper “Shark” to CBS Par’s post-nuke “Jericho” — and the shows most in demand are expected to command healthy prices.

One of the big questions on the Croisette: Are any of these new series the next “CSI,” “Lost” or “House” — a show that can take a station to the next level.

Since most local broadcast stations across Europe are big producers of their own fare, landing a slot in primetime on say, an RTL or a TF1 or the BBC, is a coup for a U.S. series.

“The market overall is pretty vibrant right now, with strong demand abroad for U.S. series,” says CBS Paramount Intl. TV prexy Armando Nunez. “That’s because,” he hastens to add, “they work.

“Without question, the content of the current American crop is not as cookie-cutter. So many U.S. shows are out of the box, as it were, and that’s what foreign programmers want.”

The year-round global trade in programming rights — whose inflection points are Mipcom, NATPE, Mip and the L.A. Screenings — is a $10 billion biz, with Yanks pocketing about $6 billion. Most of that $6 billion ends up in the coffers of the seven Hollywood majors, as they supply the vast majority of movies and series available to overseas buyers. Smaller distributors generally make do by pitching product to newcomer niche services, which are increasingly popping up around the globe and need ready-made product.

While so-called “new media” opportunities are still just a modest sideline, enormous interest is being devoted to them around the world, and all the major players — not only Americans but Europeans, Asians and Latinos as well — are convinced that these new platforms represent sizable growth prospects for their content.

Current TV series, movies, reality formats, animation, specials and older library material are increasingly being licensed not only to the traditional broadcast, cable and satellite players but also to broadband providers, cell phone operators and purveyors of other newfangled gizmos. The revenue stream from these deals is not yet a roar but it’s starting to be more than a trickle.

“The theme of our show is about how the major players are reshaping their businesses to provide integrated content delivery anytime, anywhere,” says Paul Johnson, the head of the TV division for trade show organizer Reed Midem.

In keeping with that grandiose concept, Mipcom organizers have gone out of their way to entice a half-dozen Hollywood heavy hitters to the Croisette to expound on their global corporate strategies. They include MGM’s Harry Sloan, NBC U’s Beth Comstock, ESPN’s George Bodenheimer, Disney’s Anne Sweeney, Todd Wagner of 2929 Entertainment as well as cell phone provider Orange’s Sanjiv Ahuja.

In addition, Time Warner chairman-CEO Richard Parsons has been tapped as the trade show’s Personality of the Year, and will address attendees midway through the five-day confab.

Business on the floor of the Cannes Palais is expected to be brisk, given that most economies are humming along, and ad revenues at most stations around the world are reasonably buoyant.

“This is a hit-driven business, and folks are willing to step up to secure the likeliest prospects,” explains Fox Intl. TV exec VP Marion Edwards. She points out that topnotch shows command over-the-top license fees. Less-sought-after Yank fare also find their way onto stations, but not at such markups.

“I see prices accelerating in a handful of emerging markets,” says Disney top TV salesman Tom Toumazis, pointing to Russia, Poland, Turkey, Greece, South Africa and the Mideast. “I also see digital media — IPTV, VOD and mobile — beginning to be an attractive proposition.”

Regarding the latter, Disney recently inked a video-on-demand deal with Channel Four in the U.K. to air episodes of the Mouse House’s global hits “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives.”

Among the markets that are experiencing growth is Ireland, where newcomer Channel Six has sparked competition for U.S. shows.

“Now for the first time there’s the beginning of a second-run programming market here,” says C6 head Michael Murphy. Not only is his station buying firstrun rights to current series from the U.S. majors, but he is reprogramming on a weekly basis all the episodes of “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City,” which had run sporadically on the opposition in past seasons.

“The good news is that the volume of good U.S. product is expanding, and fortunately, it’s spread across all the Hollywood majors,” Murphy says.

Yank players will once again represent a quarter of overall attendees at Mipcom, but sellers such as Germany’s Beta and Bavaria, France’s TF1 and Canal Plus, Britain’s BBC and Granada, to name only a few, will also cut a figure on the Croisette.

“Other than the healthy prices in the U.K. and new players in Spain and Ireland, there’s not a lot of noticeably competitive markets right now,” says Warner Bros. Intl. TV prexy Jeffrey Schlesinger. He does expect to see “dramatic” growth in VOD and subscription VOD, but he points out that those increases come from a very low base, so excitement should be tempered.

Warners fields the largest crop of new shows among the majors and Schlesinger says several of his contenders — “Studio 60,” “The Nine,” “Smith” and “The Class” among them — piqued buyer interest during the L.A. Screenings.

Each of the other Hollywood majors insisted they too have momentum coming into Cannes:

  • MGM is flexing its international distribution muscles once again and has promoted Jim Packer as head of its newly re-energized division. The company is planting a flag in the movie tentpole biz, and will be selling its upcoming Bond pic “Casino Royale.”

  • Paramount, under distrib topper Hal Richardson, has retuned its licensing apparatus now that the studio and DreamWorks have merged.

  • Fox will try to turn its soph drama “Prison Break” into the kind of overseas hit “24” has become. Edwards also points to “strong interest” among buyers for Fox’s fall debutants “Shark” and “Vanished.”

  • Sony has a trump card to play in “The Da Vinci Code,” which is the kind of movie likely to draw multiple bids from commercial broadcasters. VP Keith LeGoy also points to the “eagerness” with which buyers ponied up during the summer for Sony’s drama “Kidnapped.”

  • CBS Par is banking on its eerie dramas “Jericho” and “3 lbs.” among other new fare. Nunez says his schedule is filled with new media players who are increasingly getting in on the action. “Our client base is expanding and we have to figure out fairly quickly how on-demand is going to fit into our traditional windowing sequence.”

  • NBC U has already sold its new drama “Friday Night Lights” as well as its own version of Brit original “The Office” to ITV in the U.K. Prexy Belinda Menendez says “momentum out of the L.A. Screenings has not let up.”

Meanwhile, a number of other companies are also hoping to make a splash at the Mediterranean resort.

Britain’s Granada will be touting the factual series “I Shouldn’t Be Alive,” new drama “Dracula” and the seventh season of cop show “Prime Suspect”; Britain’s Portman will be fielding the series “Kingdom” with Stephen Fry.

The Germans, too, are big players, not only as buyers of Yank shows but increasingly as sellers themselves. Studio Hamburg will take the wraps off a doc called “The Tragedy of the Pamir,” while Teutonic distrib Beta will tubthumb Jan Mojto’s latest WWII-set miniseries “March of Millions,” which toplines Maria Furtwangler.

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