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A delicate balance

Newfangled platforms energize, but also unsettle, traditional players

Everyone is looking for the next worldwide watercooler wonder — sensations such as telenovela “Betty la fea,” reality superstar “Pop Idol” or Disney’s drama “Lost” — and they’re all crowding onto the Cannes Croisette next week with that as one of their objectives.

Developing, financing, launching, promoting and marketing the next global hit, or just managing to license one or another show beyond one’s own borders, is the name of the game at the 43rd edition of Mip, the annual spring sales event.

The “they” are the 11,000-plus execs focused on the international TV biz, which convenes every spring and fall on the French Riviera to buy and sell series, movies, reality formats, animation — you name it — under the auspices of Reed Midem Organization.

The sales bazaar, along with its sister trade show Mipcom in October, is a mecca for the global content market. That business is reckoned to be worth $10 billion a year, and it’s beginning to grow again at a clip.

All the Hollywood majors will be participating in the Palais convention center — with a newly recharged MGM under former SBS Broadcasting chairman Harry Sloan and a newly fashioned distribution unit at Viacom under former DreamWorks sales topper Hal Richardson expected to be particularly high-profile.

(MGM, which is now owned by a consortium of equity players, hired Sloan last fall; Richardson was brought onboard the newly demerged Viacom-CBS two months ago.)

The Hollywood majors do not unveil their fall 2006 series until May, but all say they have plenty of new properties to sell in Cannes as well as relationships with stations to maintain.

Key product supplier Fox will be shepherding Dennis Haysbert, one of the stars of its latest drama series, “The Unit,” around town while Warner Bros. will bring along additional brass to celebrate an award for its own online pioneer and AOL topper, Jonathan Miller.

There’s even a rumor that uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, he of the “CSI” franchise, will make a return visit to Cannes. David Caruso, star of “CSI: Miami” — arguably the highest-rated and most widely watched Yank show abroad since “Dallas” in the ’80s — is a definite.

For the top Tinseltown players, with their year-round production slates and the resultant massive quantities of programs they control, Mip has reacquired its raison d’etre as a key stop along the annual sales route.

And with theatrical box office grosses and sales of DVDs something of a disappointment to the Hollywood studios over the past two years, the international TV biz has re-emerged as a vital link in the ancillary chain for these congloms.

Take the once-difficult U.K. market. CBS Paramount Intl. TV prexy Armando Nunez points out that his division has placed all eight of the company’s fall 2005 primetime series on British outlets this year: “Five years ago, we would have had a tough time just selling one or two.”

And the interest from stations abroad in potential Hollywood movie blockbusters — Sony Pictures TV Intl. topper Michael Grindon is talking up both “The Da Vinci Code” and the latest Bond, “Casino Royale,” right now — never seems to wane.

The seven major Hollywood congloms belonging to the Motion Picture Assn. of America trade org alone rake in upward of $6 billion a year from their free and pay TV deals outside the U.S. With new media platforms — digital terrestrial, broadband, VOD — set to take off abroad, that figure is bound to climb.

“I’d say this is a period of experimentation for us,” says Fox Intl. TV exec VP Marion Edwards in describing the News Corp. unit’s approach to these new opportunities in foreign markets. She and some of her other counterparts suggest that within six to eight months there will be deals made in one or more key territories abroad for hot shows and/or original “mobisodes” on these new platforms.

In other words, snippets of, or promos for, whole episodes of Fox’s “24,” Alliance Atlantis’ “CSI,” Warner’s “Without a Trace,” Disney’s “Desperate Housewives” or CBS Par’s “Everybody Hates Chris” could well find themselves on portable miniscreens in Korea or Italy or some other techno-crazed territory before Mipcom next October.

Still, Edwards adds, the trick is not to kill the goose that laid the golden egg, by which she means not alienating the studios’ traditional terrestrial broadcast partners overseas who buy U.S. product by the cartload by unilaterally doing penny-ante deals with phone companies and the like.

The Americans are not alone in this “amazing race”: Leading European players such as British-based FremantleMedia, Granada and the BBC, France’s TF1, Holland’s Endemol and Germany’s RTL, to name only a few, are also expected to cut a substantial figure on the Croisette.

FremantleMedia, which boasts the largest stand on the exhibition floor, will take prospective buyers through its “Prehistoric Park,” a series fronted by time-traveling zoologist Nigel Marven from the folks who created the “Walking With …” series.

Moreover, tech titans Google and Yahoo are also participating for the first time.

What with technology moving at warp speed and established business models being turned topsy-turvy, the key players as well as the neophytes are busily formulating battle plans, though, not surprisingly, trying to keep them close to the vest.

“International TV is air cover for other businesses we’re involved in,” explains Disney’s top sales exec, Tom Toumazis. “Getting a TV deal for a show is a good way to build brand awareness and then to launch other extensions.” The Mouse House’s “Desperate Housewives,” for example, is already being localized in Latin America.

The thinking at major companies like Disney nowadays almost always involves discussion about how to extend the exploitation of a particular property through film, TV, DVD, portable devices, theme parks, consumer products, merchandising and yet-to-be-invented platforms.

Along with experimentation and extensions, there’s also geographical expansion by the Hollywood contingent. NBC Universal, for example, has just opened offices and hired additional staff for Singapore, Russia and Dubai.

“We see tremendous potential in these territories, what with new channels coming onstream and interest in on-demand services,” says NBC U’s Intl. TV prexy Belinda Menendez. She’s also optimistic that buyers will flock to new midseason dramas recently premiered on NBC, such as “Heist” and “Convictions,” the latter from the Dick Wolf stable.

Several of her counterparts also are eyeing primed-for-growth regions, having either just returned from fact-finding missions or preparing to extend their Mip trip with jaunts to the Mideast, Far East or Africa.

Sony, for example, has plowed deeply in the local production biz abroad and has come up with a series it made in Germany for RTL called “Family Law” and another made in Italy for RAI called “Guardians of the Sea,” both to sell outside those countries of origin.

As for Sloan’s newly roaring Lion, expect announcements on the Croisette about stepping up MGM channel launches around the globe.

Reed Midem organizers will also take an active role at the confab.

“Our goal is to be the research and development center for the international TV biz,” says Reed Midem TV topper Paul Johnson, in explaining why the emphasis at the five-day trade show (April 4-8) is on “preparing the biz for the near-future.”

To that end, Johnson and his team are introducing several initiatives. Among them:

Content 3.60 is a series of sessions in which producers have a chance to pitch original projects for digital platforms. Some $100,000 will be dispensed to the winners of the seven different competitive rounds.

Together with the Intl. TV Academy, an awards show honoring interactive programming is being held for the first time abroad, with a number of international celebs onboard to present the trophies.

Mipdoc, the two-day screenings program thatimmediately precedes Mip TV proper, is honoring four trailblazers in the nonfiction category, from not only the U.S. but also from Bulgaria, Vietnam and South Africa.

Johnson points out that attendance at Mipdoc will balloon this go-round by 25%. Part of the reason: “They’re the only ones digging deep these days into subject matter, while traditional TV news is becoming nothing more than sound bites.”

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