The price is right?

TV studios troll for dollars o'seas

The big question at Mipcom next week: Who will be the first U.S. seller to pocket $1.5 million an episode for one of its new shows?

That’s the new benchmark the Hollywood majors are eyeing as their frosh drama series continue to rack up deals with program buyers abroad.

Squeezing as much out of international clients as possible is ever more essential as production costs for U.S. series, especially dramas, keep spiraling. Pilots for some of these shows cost upward of $5 million and with U.S. domestic network license fees hardly budging, the deficits are widening.

Some 11,000 program buyers and sellers hit the Cannes Croisette over the weekend for the 22nd annual sales bazaar, and those selling the creme de la creme of Yank shows are hoping to pry open a lot of pocketbooks.

“The hits are getting record prices, no doubt about it,” Tom Toumazis, Disney’s top salesman, told Daily Variety.

Mouse House mavens are banking on their telenovela-inspired “Ugly Betty” to transform into a swan of a show Stateside and thus entice its way into the hearts of overseas buyers.

And Disney is not alone.

Warner Bros. TV execs hope to move the needle on “The Nine,” NBC Universal is touting “Heroes” and Fox is sharpening its pitch on “Shark,” just to name a few of the shows Hollywood distribs are banking on.

Since Mipcom, which opens Monday and runs through Oct. 13, is being held a little later than usual, there will be solid U.S. ratings data to wave in front of prospective buyers (and disappointing numbers to hide under the table).

Foreign buyers will be asking themselves whether any of these new American series is the next “CSI,” “Lost” or “House” — a show that can take a station to the next level.

Since most of the key TV stations across Europe — think Germany’s RTL, France’s TF1 or Britain’s BBC — are big producers of their own fare, a decision to slot a Yank series in primetime is a coup for the U.S. seller in terms of both prestige and dollars.

(On the other hand, with so much American product on offer and only a few slots abroad available, many U.S. shows simply go begging or end up with only modest foreign license fees.)

“Without question, the content of the current American crop is not as cookie-cutter as it once was. A number of shows are ‘out of the box,’ as it were, and that’s what foreign programmers want,” said CBS Paramount Intl. TV prexy Armando Nunez. Nunez’s drama “Jericho” came strongly out of the box Stateside last week and is that distrib’s most likely top title for foreign buyers.

The year-round global trade in programming rights — whose annual inflection points are Mipcom, NATPE, Mip and the L.A. Screenings — is a $10 billion biz worldwide, with Yanks pocketing about $6 billion of that total. Most of that ends up in the coffers of the seven Hollywood majors, as they supply the 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 readymade product.

While so-called new-media opportunities are still just a modest sideline, enormous interest is being devoted to them, and all the players — not only Americans but also Europeans, Asians and Latinos — are convinced these platforms represent 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 technology.

The revenue stream from these deals is not yet a flood, 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,” said Paul Johnson, head of the TV division for trade show organizer Reed Midem.

In keeping with that grandiose concept, Mipcom organizers have enticed a half-dozen Hollywood heavy hitters to the Croisette to expound on their global corporate strategies.

The speakers are MGM’s Harry Sloan, NBC U’s Beth Comstock, ESPN’s George Bodenheimer, Disney’s Anne Sweeney, 2929 Entertainment’s Todd Wagner 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 be honored with a gala reception midway through the confab.

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

Meanwhile, this weekend will be devoted to Mipcom Jr., the mini-market for kids programming, and to Latin telenovelas, which have become a worldwide phenom, especially for startup channels.

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