Mip’s hip to the next big thing

Hopeful exex hunt elusive hit shows to boost skeds

CANNES — No one could accuse international TV execs of lacking optimism.

As the 41st Mip TV market came and went (March 29-April 2), industryites determinedly cast their minds forward to a brighter, more prosperous future and trawled the market for the Next Big Thing.

On their wish list: the next reality hit or killer TV application to transform their fortunes.

That search reflects a sobering reality about the state of the TV biz.

True, ad revs are expected to rise by 3% in Europe this year, while the stronger Euro gives Continentals deeper pockets.

And mart attendance was not hit by jitters over terrorism, despite the recent Madrid train bombings.

Infact buyer numbers were up 23% to 2,869 over last year’s SARS-hit event. Total participants were 10,953 (including the Milia mart attendees), up almost 2,000 on last year.

But while big-brand companies and hot-hit honchos could boast significant sales — Warner Bros. did a $220 million deal with Herbert Kloiber’s Tele Munchen — for others, business was still middling.

Having fallen drastically a couple of years ago, prices for all but the most sought-after product have stayed down.

There were some deals signed, however.

Beyond the Warner deal, which underscored a recovering German market, Gallic paybox Canal Plus bought a batch of TV series including “The Shield” and “The L Word.”

Sony and Paramount reported strong interest in their respective dramas “Kingdom Hospital” and “Deadwood.”

Sony’s exec VP Intl. distribution Peter Iacomo say the company expects to achieve its highest sales for a drama in more than a decade with “Kingdom Hospital.”

“There’s a large broadcaster interest in shows that are distinct, unique, such as ‘Nip/Tuck,’ or those which are excellently produced in a more traditional manner such as ‘Without a Trace’ and ‘CSI,’ ” says WB Intl. prexy Jeffrey Schlesinger.

Globally, interest in reality showed few signs of waning. “The Apprentice,” handled by FremantleMedia, and other hot properties being keenly vied for.

There was buzz on Fox’s “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance,” Endemol’s “There’s Something About Myriam” and Reveille’s “30 Days.”

“The last couple of markets were quite depressed but now there is a voracious appetite for reality and factual programming,” says Fremantle Intl. managing director David Ellender. “Buyers are more selective but they are prepared to pay good prices for what they really want.”

Ellender boasted that 80 buyers from 30-odd countries were in discussion on “The Apprentice.”

However, some distribbers expressed more caution about the state of the biz.

“This Mip has been an extremely active market,” observes French sales exec Herve Michel, senior VP at France Televisions Distribution. “But I don’t know if we can talk of an uptick in the business. Selling has become more and more fragmented.”

Not only are distribbers doing fewer big deals with cash-rich terrestrial channels, they are spending more time talking much smaller sums with cablers and a growing army of newcomers from the worlds of DVD, VOD or mobile telephony.

The prospect of a rosier future for the TV biz thanks to these growth areas was heavily touted by mart organizer Reed Midem in a series of well attended conferences about new revenue streams.

In a keynote speech March 31 on the future of entertainment programming, Patrick Kennedy, exec VP, Sony Pictures Digital Networks, had a packed audience dreaming of a brave new world driven by the nascent consumer habits of today’s technologically sophisticated 10 year olds — the “always on” generation.

“We have to work with the electronics industry to shape the new business models, because there are so many options today,” Kennedy urges. “I don’t expect this in the next two years, but in ten years we’ll look back at the difference DVD has made and we’ll be wondering how we ever managed to get by without all that money.”

Other confabs focused on the revenue-enhancing powers of product placement and branding, as well as broadband and cellphone entertainment.

Companies like MTV are already cashing in on cellphone distribution.

“We’re making millions from ringtones,” MTV chairman Tom Freston says.

In terms of the traditional business of selling programs, China with its 1.25 billion citizens, was talked up as the next El Dorado.

In an opening speech during China Day on March 31, Hu Zhanfan, vice minister of China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and TV promised that the nation’s TV industry was aiming to “enrich programming content, satisfy the growing demand of the public, strengthen communication and cooperation with international partners and enable the world to better understand China.”

However, despite the sector’s spectacular growth (TV ad revs rose 45% last year), for content providers China is still a modest proposition.

“There’s a lot more activity in China this year,” says Paramount Intl. prexy Gary Marenzi. “But in terms of licensing programming, the market’s still very low.”

(Eileen Tasca and Ed Meza contributed to this report.)

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