Small-screen fests feel squeeze

Future looks uncertain as culture loses to commerce

LONDON — Twenty years ago British TV execs would arrive en masse at the Swiss lakeside resort of Montreux in a convoy of Mercedes for five days of expense-account schmoozing at the Rose d’Or TV festival and competition.

Not anymore.

In the hard-nosed, multichannel age, winning a fest award is considered far less important than keeping a sharp competitive edge and investors onside.

As a result, fests devoted to culture rather than commerce have to think hard about reinventing themselves for the 21st century — or risk becoming relics from the more genteel terrestrial age.

The Rose d’Or bash relocated from Montreux to buzzier Lucerne last month to reignite interest and persuade Euro and U.S. toppers that the fest is still worth attending — and winning.

The 44-year-old event, in the midst of a revamp to broaden its appeal beyond the core constituency of entertainment producers, is not the only international TV love-in feeling the squeeze.

“The Internet and email have made communicating much easier, so it’s hard to justify going to one of these events, especially as they are not places where deals are done,” says Steve Anderson, controller of arts, current affairs and religion at the ITV Network Center in London.

“But having attended the Rose d’Or for the first time this year, I was pleasantly surprised by the scope of its activities. There was even a discussion about how TV covers news at one of the sessions. It needs to modernize further, but I think its backers are well aware of the problem.”

Across the Atlantic, Canada’s Banff TV Festival, staged amid equally breathtaking scenery in the Rockies, has been hit by falling attendance that has sparked a financial crisis.

Last month the foundation that runs Banff filed for bankruptcy protection, and its longtime president and chief exec Pat Ferns stepped down.

There is speculation that this year’s Banff — its 25th anniversary year — could be its last.

“The foundation did have a serious enough situation at hand to take the bankruptcy move, and we stepped in to rescue things,” says Robert Montgomery, director of events specialists Achilles Partners.

He blames Banff’s difficulties on last year’s SARS health scare, fears of terrorist attacks and an ambitious expansion strategy pursued by the old regime that led to several loss-making spinoff events.

This year’s fest bows on June 13, and organizers are putting on a brave face, but they admit the number of paying delegates is likely to be down on last year’s 1,600 attendees, itself 200 fewer than Banff 2002.

“We’re confident that the festival has a great future,” says a Banff spokeswoman. “This event is absolutely critical for the Canadian TV industry. We’d like to see more people from the U.S. at Banff and are trying to make ourselves more relevant to Americans.”

Persuading Americans to support international TV festivals is a familiar problem for Jim Graham, life president of the Prix Italia.

A tie-up with NATPE, announced three years ago, has borne little fruit for the Prix. This year’s event was mired in uncertainty because of a four-month delay in announcing the location.

But the Prix, at 55, is the world’s oldest broadcasting shindig, and its prizes still confer prestige on winners. “We were delighted to win two Prix last year,” says C4 CEO Mark Thompson. “They still have a resonance and are very much worth winning.”

By opening its doors to the general public, numbers climbed by 10% at the 2003 Prix, held at Catania in Sicily.

But Graham acknowledges he faces an uphill struggle in persuading the big players to return to this culturally top-heavy competition where music and arts shows rule the roost and which, to some, looks out of sync in an era dominated by reality formats.

“I remember when both the chairmen of the BBC and the Independent Television Commission would always come to the Prix,” Graham says. “Our task is to revive the Prix now that some of the major uncertainties that have affected broadcasters, like ITV’s consolidation in the U.K., have begun to disappear.”

Unlike Banff, the Prix Italia is a movable feast. It will return for its third year to Catania because local authorities are happy to pay for it. This is despite the fact that Sicily has few direct international flights — a disincentive for some industryites.

It was chosen in preference to Sasso di Mattera, in the heel of Italy, where Mel Gibson shot “The Passion of the Christ,” after the intervention of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

But not every TV fest is facing hard times: Input, now in its 26th year and this time being held in Barcelona, is a modest event (acronym is derived from INternational PUblic Television), short on pomp and ceremony, but long on screening director-led films, often from developing nations where competition for ratings is less intense than in the big markets. There are no prizes, but abundant opportunities for program makers to discuss their own work in front of their peers.

“Our numbers were up last year, and I know the organizers are optimistic about this month’s Barcelona Input,” says Carl Otto Dethlefsen, a commissioning editor at Danish pubcaster DR and chair of Input 2003. “People come to Input because it’s a relief not to be in such an intense commercial environment.”

Graham shares this sentiment. “The Prix Italia’s single focus is quality,” he says. “It’s nothing to do with the number of viewers, shareholder return or profit and loss, and there must be space in our world for quality.”

Both Banff and the Golden Rose are banking on Graham’s being right.

(Tamsen Tillson contributed to this report.)