Stocks fall, ads are threatened, new media grows

Every August millions of Europeans stop work and migrate to the coast. But this year, no sooner had they pitched their tents and unfolded picnic tables than a violent storm blew in from the West, uprooting trees and turning streets into rivers.

Perhaps this should have been taken as an omen of the economic thunderbolts about to be unleashed from across the Atlantic.

Already weakened by the fragmentation of the TV market and competition from the Internet and vidgames, TV execs are now faced with the prospect of a recession that will drive yet more advertising online.

In the weeks that have followed the meltdown on Wall Street, broadcasters such as Germany’s ProSiebenSat.1 and the U.K.’s ITV have been revising ad revenue forecasts downward and preparing to slash costs.

“It is a very difficult time for TV and that’s what you see when you look at the low share price for ProSieben for example,” says Marcus Sander, a media analyst at Oppenheim Research. “There is no real positive to trigger a change there.”

Sander says next year is likely to see a decline in TV ad revenue, and 2010 is unlikely to be much better.

For those selling programs at Mipcom, this would suggest that a bruising week awaits them on the Croisette, as acquisition execs prepare to play hardball.

But Bertrand Villegas, founding partner of audience analysis company the Wit, urges caution. Although cheaper programming may be tempting, he argues it would be folly to sacrifice quality.

“It would create a downward spiral,” he says. “If they buy cheaper programming in a period of huge audience fragmentation, the viewers will watch something else and ad revenues will fall.”

There is another reason why prices may dip. Villegas argues that the latest U.S. series are not as good as the older ones, such as “House” and “Desperate Housewives.” The only new one to shine, he believes,is J.J. Abrams’ “Fringe.”

The doom and gloom is having an effect on the type of programming audiences want to watch, says Villegas. Family-friendly, light entertainment shows like the “X-Factor” and “Pop Idol” franchises are more popular than ever.

Jay Kandola, ITV director of acquisitions, agrees.

“There is a big mood swing toward big feel-good shows, which are pulling in viewers in staggering numbers. People are watching these shows together as a family.”

She notes that major live sporting events — like the Olympics and soccer’s World Cup — have also been delivering huge numbers.

“People are gravitating to the telly, collectively, a lot more now than they were before. Perhaps it’s because it is a little bit gloomy at the moment. It hasn’t quite hit their pockets yet, but it will, and they are tightening their belts.” Kandola says crime procedurals will still be popular. “Audiences like them because they are safe. At the end of the program you are going to have a resolution, and nine times out of 10 it is a good one.”

Kandola points out that the acquisition game is a little different this year for another reason. The U.S. writers strike delayed the development of so many programs that it’s been possible for acquisitions execs to wait to see how the new shows have fared in the U.S. For newbies like “Knight Rider,” this may not have worked in their favor.

Ruediger Boess, senior VP of group programming acquisitions at ProSiebenSat.1, says the major U.S. drama series are still audience pleasers, but advertisers have become more cautious. “They are going for the sure thing, andthey want to see that the program is delivering, and then they will book in. For the first few episodes, they are very shy.”

Serial dramas, he says, have not been working as well as other skeins in Germany. “Young viewers will not commit to watching every week… ‘Damages’ attracted fewer and fewer viewers with every episode. They are not willing to think too much.”

Fantasy series remain popular as they are seen as a way to capture the younger viewers the advertisers want to reach, but this remains a cult following, which means those shows are relegated mainly to smaller channels.

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