It's a small world
International borders are no match for the next generation of leaders in the television businessIt's a hell of a world the Next Generation is inheriting.
Our inaugural graduating class of 20 international television talents is coming of age in a time of seismic change: A global recession is undermining the foundations of ad-supported TV, and digital platforms, particularly the Internet, threaten to turn the business into a global free-for-all where giants can emerge overnight -- and vanish tomorrow.
So why are they all smiling?
Let the old fogies atop the world's largest broadcasters and production conglomerates grumble about migrating audiences, declining ad revenue and online piracy. The 20 men and women on The Hollywood Reporter's inaugural Next Generation International Television list are embracing change. They've grown up with it.
CLICK HERE for THR's Next Gen Int'l TV list
"It's one of the skills we've had to develop, to accept change as the natural course of events, that change is valuable, change is fun," says Anton Kurbatov, vp at Russia's Sistema Mass Media and, at 24, the youngest executive in the Next Gen class of 2009. "What drives me is that something is changing every day. You have to keep pushing yourself out of the comfort zone."
For most of our group, that push started back at university. A degree from Harvard or the London School of Economics is as common among these cosmopolites as accent-free English and a buzzing BlackBerry. Our Next Gen execs know they are competing in a truly global marketplace and are acting accordingly.
"My generation sees the bigger picture," says Juliet Asante, founder and CEO of Ghana-based Eagle Production. "We're always looking (at) how we can collaborate and watching boundaries (fall) down."
Those falling boundaries are ones of nationality, language and even gender. Although our inaugural Next Generation of international television talent is heavy on the Y chromosomes -- 13 men to just seven women -- even that represents real progress from just a few years back. The old boy's network of international TV is changing for good.
"The new-media world is still crystalizing, it's still not clear who the big players will be, what the business models will be, who you will be doing business with," says Alexander von Moers, new media sales manager at Germany-based Beta Film.
And they are ready to travel the world to find it. This is the frequent flier generation. They battle jet lag and endure lifeless airport terminals in search of the next trend, the best deal.
To keep up on new pilot deals in Burbank, broadband rollout in Beijing or mobile platform development Barcelona, our execs stay jacked into the mainframe. The Internet is as essential a tool as the telephone. Professional corporate networking site LinkedIn the new corporate Rolodex. Our group still reads plenty of "old media" too -- the trades, local and international, the Economist, the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal. But unlike previous generations, they also scan blogs and cruise chat rooms, always on the lookout for new information, signs of the next big thing.
Interestingly, these digital natives are easily able to distinguish between a useful new tech tool and a hyped-up time waster.
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"Twitter? Ah, no. I've never even looked at it," was SBS Broadcasting's Rozan Hamaker's bemused reply when asked about the importance of that app-of-the-moment in doing business internationally.
Moving across borders and time zones, these execs don't expect the 9-to-5 lifestyle they could have enjoyed a few decades ago. The weekend? National holiday? Forget it. If your mobile's charged, you're open for business.
"That's probably the biggest difference with the older generation," says Beta Film's Alexander von Moers. "The boundary between work and your personal life isn't there the way it used to be."
Also disappearing is the boundary between "us" and the U.S. These executives' parents, suckled on public broadcasters and state-own telcos, could be knee-jerk protectionist, not to mention anti-American. The class of 2009 grew up on Hollywood and good-old American TV. They watch their local soaps and cop shows but they also buy the DVD boxed sets of "24," "Mad Men" and "The Wire." They tune in to "Squawk Box" on their CNBC Europe or Asia affiliate before going to work and they catch up with "The Daily Show" online.
The Next Generation of international television talent doesn't want to fight America or American TV. They want to be American. Or at least, be in American TV.
Our onscreen talent has one eye on their local market, one on their bankability stateside. Mexican actress Ana Claudia Talancon has leveraged her exposure as star of Televisa's "Terminales" and other Mexican small-screen fare to score supporting roles in feature films including "Fast Food Nation," "One Missed Call" and Ryan Piers Williams' upcoming drama "The Dry Land." South African-born, Aussie-raised Jessica Marais is a star down under with hit family drama "Packed to the Rafters" but she's not above doing a guest star role in ABC's fantasy series "Legend of the Seeker." The Alphabet network plays a more direct role in the career of Canuck Michael Seater, whose new CBC sitcom "18 to Life" was partially bankrolled by ABC.
The suits in our list want to sell to America. Taking a page from the studios' books, they are creating networks and content that work around the world.
As head of international sales at Nippon Television Network, Yoko Takashima brought Japanese entrepreneur series "Dragons' Den" (known as "Shark Tank" stateside) to the world and sold game show format "Silent Library" to MTV. Similarly, out of William Morris Endeavor's London office, agent Holly Pye brought Jamie Oliver's company Fresh One together with Ryan Seacrest Prods. to create a new reality series for ABC loosely based on Oliver's acclaimed U.K. school lunch project "Jamie's School Dinners."
"We are all looking outside our borders, for partnerships and inspiration," says German producer Max Wiedemann. "We always travel to the May screenings (in Los Angeles) to see what the new trends are. It's not about trying to copy American shows one to one but about getting an idea for what can work internationally."
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That echoes Nicola de Angelis, who wants to turn Italy's mainstay production house, the De Angelis Group, into a U.S.-style mini-major. Or MTV France exec Matthieu Crubezy, who has taken the attitude and style of the U.S. youth-driven network and given it a Gallic-twist by commissioning local-language versions of "Made" and "Pimp My Ride."
Our inaugural Next Generation graduating class is ambitious, confident and just a wee bit cocky. But they have no illusions about the challenges facing them. Few expect ad revenues in the rich countries will ever return to the heights of just five years ago. And even in developing regions where analysts expect a quick bounce back, our class is looking at a much more modest future.
"We're not counting on yachts and villas on the Cote d'Azur," jokes one. "But we don't expect that. We haven't really known the boom times (so) we don't expect them."
Indeed, many in this Next Generation were just getting started when the dot-com bubble burst in 2000. They've learned the lessons of keeping overhead low and forecasts sensible. Of the 20 chosen here, not one is a huckster predicting that, in five years, his company will buy out Disney. None is talking up her IPO. For the kids today, hype is out. Work is in.
On the top of their to-do list is: figure out a new model. The free TV, ad-backed structure is crumbling. Double-digit drops in revenue around the world have forced the jumbo jets that are the big network broadcasters to shed extra cargo quickly to keep from falling out of the sky. Budgets are being slashed, commissions drying up.
In fact, this generation's push to go global is driven as much by the financial need to diversify in a shrinking market as any flat world convictions. As free TV revenue drops, additional streams in VOD, mobile and international sales become essential.
At the same time, viewers are migrating online, staring at their iPod screens and thumb-punching their PSPs. Channels and content owners are trying to keep pace but, even our class would admit, no one yet has found a solution.
No one in this lineup is proselytizing the end of television. But none underestimate the scale of the changes under way. They've seen how the Internet has ravaged the music and publishing industry and they know the damage it can do to TV if new models aren't found.
"The new technology is exciting because it opens up other ways of doing business," says Rozan Hamaker of SBS Broadcasting. "But it's up to us broadcasters and the content owners to find a partnership that works for all of us. If content owners only think of themselves and put their shows up on the Internet, the ratings for free TV will fall and license fees will eventually drop dramatically. That's short term, not long-term thinking."
But planning a long game can be a difficult task when the rules keep changing. Will today's giants even be around in five years? Is Hulu the next 800-pound gorilla? What about Google? How about all those mobile carriers -- flush with cash and buying content but -- so far -- without a big audience? And, in the final analysis, what does all this mean for licensing windows, rights deals and back-end agreements?
If any our Next Generation talents has the answer, they aren't telling. But they aren't blinking either.
"If I was afraid of the future," says Beta Film's Alexander von Moers, "I wouldn't be here."
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