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NATPE Budapest: Attendance Up as Economic Uncertainty Remains in Focus

Under The Dome Screengrab - H 2013
CBS' Stephen King sci-fi drama 'Under The Dome' was one of the screening highlights at NATPE Budapest.

Industry upheaval and the outlook for Eastern Europe's media sector were also themes of the European TV market.

BUDAPEST -- The numbers were good, the weather was bad and the reactions to this year's NATPE Budapest were decidedly mixed.

157 exhibitors and more 400 buyers made the trip this week to the TV trade fair focused on Central and Eastern Europe, up slightly from 2012, but economic uncertainty in the region and a rapidly changing marketplace mean the future of the business here remains cloudy.

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“You don't feel the economic downturn in Miami Beach as you do in this market,” said NATPE president and CEO Rod Perth. “But I hope that, like in the U.S., the market here is on the way back.”

The U.S. studios appear committed to the Eastern European event, which NATPE took over last year, and all the majors were represented with buyer screenings of their upcoming shows. But David Smyth, vp European sales for Twentieth Century Fox Television, admits that the region is still recovering from the economic crisis of 2008-2009.

“The economic situation has been quite severe. We saw double digit drops in advertising revenue in some territories,” Smyth said. “But things do seem to be stabilizing now ... [Buyers] are turning their thoughts to what they can achieve over the next two to three years, where previously [at the height of the crisis] it was all about 'let's see what happens this year.'”

High-end drama made in the U.S. continues to appeal to East European buyers and Smyth points to Fox's new NBC thriller Crisis, featuring Gillian Anderson, as well as action-adventure Sleepy Hollow, a modern-day retelling of the Washington Irving classic, produced for Fox stateside, as two of the best-received new series.

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Barry Chamberlain, evp CBS Studios International, agrees that it is big-budgeted U.S. dramas that offer an edge over local production, which is otherwise on the upswing in the region. He points to the CBS sci-fi series Under the Dome, a production from Steven Spielberg's Amblin Television adapted from a Stephen King story, which CBS screened in Budapest, as the kind of top-end product drawing buyer interest.

Channel representatives, however, were mostly underwhelmed by this year's studio offerings, with many grumbling that there were few “sure things” among this season's new pilots.

“What we'd really love is another (closed-episodic drama) like The Mentalist,” said Filip Zunec, head of film and series at Croatian broadcaster RTL Televizija. “The more serial stories, with multi-episode story arcs, they don't work for us.”

And even with high-end drama, the studios are getting more local competition. Antony Root, evp original programming and production at HBO Europe, speaking at a breakfast session at NAPTE Budapest, pointed to several new local efforts, including the Polish period mini-series Burning Bush from Oscar-nominated director Agnieszka Holland, as the kind of top-drawer productions HBO is looking to do in the future. Turkish-made dramas, such as the epic period series Magnificent Century, boast budgets close to $1 million or more per episode and are delivering strong ratings in many territories in the region.

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Another issue on everyone's mind at this year's NATPE Budapest was online distribution. VOD is still in its infancy in most territories in the region -- Netflix and Amazon's LoveFilm haven't yet arrived and most local players are tiny compared to their free-to-air equivalents. While nearly a third of attending buyers, according to a NATPE survey, said they were buying Internet rights, digital revenues are still a fraction of those in more mature markets. Change, everyone here agreed, is coming, but no one seemed certain what exactly that change will bring.

That uncertainty also hangs over NATPE Budapest. NATPE has invested heavily in this market, demonstrating its commitment to the region, but competition is fierce. Not only are there the huge European TV trade fairs in Cannes -- MipTV in the spring and MIPCOM in the fall -- but new markets seem to sprout up every few months.

“There are more markets than Apple iPhone apps,” quips Perth. While NATPE remains committed to Budapest, Perth says the company will “remain nimble” and continue to adjust to the demands of buyers and sellers.

“Everything is changing in this business, so it makes sense that the trade fair business, which has stayed much the same for 50 years, will have to change, too,” he said.