Mixed Signals

A look at what's working -- and what's not -- in nine global markets

Australia

SYDNEY -- This year will see a new period of cooperation between Australia's normally intensely competitive free-to-air TV networks as they launch the Freeview digital TV platform here in May, which will include up to 10 new free-to-air digital channels.

But with little more than a month before the new channels are unveiled, Network Ten is the only broadcaster to detail its plans, with a new HD 24-hour sports channel called One to launch Thursday.

Plans for pubcasters SBS and the ABC, who want to launch a World News and Information channel and an older-skewing kids channel, respectively, are dependent on additional government funding which won't be confirmed until mid-May. The Seven and Nine networks have not made their digital channels plans public but are believed to include a general entertainment and movie channel.

The free-to-air broadcasters have collectively committed to providing more than AUS$50 million ($36.5 million) worth of air time during the next year to promote Freeview.

Network Ten head of programming Beverley McGarvey, who will head a smaller than usual team at this year's MIP, says the youth-targeted network is on the lookout for top programming, but sellers on the open market might need to realign their expectations."They are going to have to be responsible in their deals," she says. "As broadcasters we have to maintain ratings but with the economic downturn we have to be responsible with how we spend."

Ten is looking for early evening programming and entertainment formats with the cancellation of "Big Brother" last year after eight seasons, and its failure to find as popular a replacement is putting a large hole in its schedule. It's gambling on a local version of Shine's "Masterchef" format to bring back audiences but "we need to see what's out there, especially from the U.K. and what new formats are available," McGarvey says.
-- Pip Bulbeck

Canada



Vancouver-based Paperny will shop "Combat School" at MIP
 
TORONTO -- If you want to know what's not working on your nearest Canadian TV set, look no further than traditional, linear storytelling and decidedly downbeat programming.

David Paperny, president of Vancouver-based indie producer Paperny, says the rise of new media is crowding out old-style storytelling."Audiences want more," he says. "They want fast-moving stories that operate on many levels."

An example: Paperny will shop "Combat School" at MIP, a Discovery Channel documentary series that follows 40 Canadian soldiers from boot camp to the battlefields of Afghanistan.

Also not ready for Canadian primetime are downer story lines, insists Laszlo Barna, president of the TV group at E1 Entertainment, the indie producer which just sold the Canadian cop drama "The Bridge" to CBS. "Keep it light-hearted," Barna says.

Kirstin Layfield, executive director of network programming at CBC Television, says "low-rent format deals" that American and other foreign distributors are shopping to cost-conscious Canadian broadcasters aren't going over well.

"Our viewers want a higher level of quality," she says. "We're all tight (for money), but quality and story comes first, not the deal."
-- Etan Vlessing

France

PARIS -- A new ad ban on the country's public networks -- set in motion Jan. 5 -- has proven to be grave for Gallic terrestrial networks, but good news for cable and HD channels.

France's main networks saw audience numbers remain relatively stable in 2008, while ad revenue suffered across the board. France Televisions officially removed all ads from its evening TV programming per an initiative from President Nicolas Sarkozy, but saw little change in its primetime market shares.

All of the terrestrial networks are having trouble attracting viewers to primetime news programs. TF1's evening news has seen a sharp decline in ratings, ever since the network replaced longtime news veteran Patrick Poivre d'Arvor with younger, female anchor Laurence Ferrari. The news on France 2 is suffering, too, with presenter David Pujadas losing viewers quickly, partly because of the rapidly dropping ratings for Julien Courbet's "Service Maximum," which recently was canceled. TF1's hit show "Star Academy" also has seen a dramatic 22% ratings drop compared with 2007, as the competition -- M6's "America Idol"-like "La Nouvelle Star" -- continues to dominate. Even TF1's hit "CSI" franchise episodes didn't manage to attract as many viewers in 2008 as in previous years, with 10.3 million viewers for the most-watched episode of the year, compared with more than 11 million for an episode of "CSI: NY" in 2007.

"I prefer old shows that work to new ones that don't," CEO Nonce Paolini says. Public networks France 2 and 3 have more space to fill in the advertising gap on their respective programming grids and will be on the lookout for new formats, though they, too, will most likely shy away from U.S. fare to focus mostly on national fare thanks to a production budget of €375 million from the state.
-- Rebecca Leffler

Germany

COLOGNE, Germany -- "Just throw a dart" is the comment from independent program licenser Jan Tibursky when asked to pinpoint scheduling problems on the main German commercial networks. "Primetime, daytime, weekends, there are problems everywhere, especially with fictional programming."

That's hard to dispute. While such established shows as "House," "NCIS" or "CSI: Miami" continue to deliver, new entries -- German or imported -- have struggled to find an audience.

RTL's primetime is holding up, but it continues to struggle with its daytime and weekend schedules. After the costly failure of the locally produced "112," an "action soap opera," RTL would love a strong U.S. series or format it could strip in the late afternoon.

Berlin-based Sat.1 is still reeling after a string of in-house misfires, including the sitcom "Plotzlich Papa" and the hospital dramas "Dr. Molly & Karl" and "Klinik am Alex." They were Sat.1's attempt to copy the quirky, hip style of such U.S. shows as "Grey's Anatomy" and "House," but German viewers are having none of it.

What they also are going for is reality. RTL Television has maintained its ratings pole position thanks to the strength of its nonfiction lineup -- from "DSDS" (the German version of "American Idol") to such in-house reality formats as "Rach the Restaurant Tester" or "Teenagers Out of Control." Expect the format business to be where the action is this MIP.
-- Scott Roxborough

Italy



Rai Trade recently sold
"Inspector Montalbano" to BBC 4
 
ROME -- One of the biggest challenges facing Italian TV is the gradual movement of quality, cultural programming on the major networks to late hours, as primetime gets longer. The absence of more sophisticated evening programs has helped the large bouquet of Rupert Murdoch-owned Sky subscription satellite TV stations, which have offered viewers an alternative to the Rai-Mediaset duopoly. Satellite has become the refuge of more cultural television. While Sky's mainstay is the impressive amount of American programming, English soccer, and Italian news, such stations as the History Channel and National Geographic also provide comfort for viewers seeking more substantive fare at watchable times.

Italy's digital terrestrial revolution should offer Rai and Mediaset added space for more cultural programming. At least 40% of the new digital channels are to be owned by "new subjects" (i.e. neither Rai nor Mediaset). And there also could be trade in the other direction. Rai's commercial arm, Rai Trade, recently managed to sell one of its more successful dramas, "Inspector Montalbano" to the British digital station, BBC 4.
-- Mark Worden

Mexico



HBO Latin America's "Capadocia"
 
MEXICO CITY -- Not even a full-blown economic crisis can slow down Mexico's telenovela machine. No. 1 network Televisa churns out up to a dozen soaps a year and is showing no signs of letting up. Telenovelas continue to top Mexico's ratings charts and they perform exceptionally well abroad, having aired in such far-flung places as China, Russia and Namibia. Rival network TV Azteca, which puts out nearly 800 hours of soaps and 7,000 hours of content annually, also plans to keep the production wheels turning. Azteca's international sales vp Marcel Vinay expects an increased international demand for canned content as many markets look to cut back on production costs.

With Televisa and Azteca controlling more than 90% of Mexico's TV stations, new players have found it difficult to crack the market here. NBC Universal's Telemundo was seeking a broadcast license in Mexico, but shifted its approach last year when it signed a programming pact with Televisa. Under the deal, Televisa airs 1,000 hours a year of Telemundo-produced content.

On the pay TV front, HBO Latin America is preparing a second season of the women's drama series "Capadocia." Executive vp Luis Peraza says HBO would like to produce two series a year out of Mexico, but it's taking a wait-and-see approach as it monitors the economic situation.
-- John Hecht

U.K.

LONDON -- "New drama commissions just aren't happening," whispers one independent drama producer who asks to remain unnamed. But the perilous state of drama on commercial television in the U.K. is hardly a secret anymore. At the beginning of this month ITV executive chairman Michael Grade told shareholders in the U.K.'s biggest commercial broadcaster that ITV schedules were to be shifted toward entertainment, and that a slew of long-running primetime drama shows were to be axed.

With big ITV entertainment shows like "Dancing on Ice" scoring 9 million viewers it's hardly a surprise that the network is shaking up the schedules to try to give its new game show "The Colour of Money," the best possible chance. A successful game show or variety show like "Britain's Got Talent" is much more cost effective to run and has viewers tuning in live week after week.

ITV is sitting on a stockpile of completed made-for-TV movies that it can't afford to air. Under a quirk in its accounting procedures, a show can sit as an asset on the balance sheet until transmission, when its value is translated into advertising income. In these straightened times the fear is that they would pull in a loss. Whilesome projects have been axed altogether, the broadcaster is not turning its back on drama entirely -- it has commissioned eight new Agatha Christie dramas, including a new version of "Murder on the Orient Express," and returning series like "Foyle's War" are still in good shape.
-- Mimi Turner

Japan

TOKYO -- The changes occurring in programming for Japanese TV are being shaped by demographic forces that will be affecting other countries a few years down the line, as well as by more regular periodic shifts in fashion and taste. This is happening against a backdrop of the advertising/budgetary fallout from the global slowdown that has slammed the Japanese economy perhaps worse than any other.

Years of low birthrates means the shrunken audience for kids and youth programming is now becoming the shrunken audience in the young adult demographic so crucial to advertising revenue. Even the variety show, long a mainstay of every commercial network's schedule, has been feeling the strain.

Meanwhile, Tokyo Broadcasting System TV is reshuffling more than half of its schedule through April. One of the major changes will be halving the length of its flagship News23 program while introducing a 6-8 p.m. news slot -- which is usually devoted to light entertainment.

TBS has reported an uptick in interest from overseas in formats which are more economical to produce, such as "Batsu Bidding" and its fast-paced quiz program, "Door of Time."

While TV is often accused of constantly dumbing down, the aging audiences of Japan are driving the demand for more news and other "serious" programming. "There's a trend across most stations in Japan for less variety shows and more documentary-type programming, which older audiences prefer," says Fumihiro Yamanouchi, of the corporate strategy division of WOWOW, the country's biggest cable-satellite pay channel. "Unfortunately it's not so good for advertisers as younger audiences are the ones impacted most by TV commercials."
-- Gavin Blair

Spain



Globomedia's "Aquila Roja"
 
MADRID -- What doesn't work on Spanish television? For private channels, the decision was made a few years ago that big U.S. movies definitely don't connect with viewers. But nowadays you also could throw into that category nonreality, nonseries entertainment programming such as contests, music programs and variety shows.

As for fiction -- Spain is tired of the hackneyed formats. "Cloned products don't work," reports Daniel Ecija, creative director of fiction for production powerhouse Globomedia. "Nor do series with a narrow target audience because the Spanish viewership's profile is very broad."

The hot ticket, hands down, are nationally produced fiction series. As a result, Globomedia and other Spanish producers are going to MIP with original series in an effort to demonstrate that they know the path to the next new trend in fiction.

One such gamble is Globomedia's "Aguila Roja," which broke records with its debut. "We have great expectations for the international run of the series, which launched in Spain with a spectacular 26.5% share," Ecija says.
-- Pamela Rolfe
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