MIPCOM: Drama Dominates While Reality Grows Stale

How to Get Away With Murder Still - H 2014
ABC/Mitchell Haaseth

How to Get Away With Murder Still - H 2014

"There are no game-changers" as reality retreats from the market and online platforms grow

Drama was hot, reality was, well, not and, if there was ever any doubt, the digital revolution has arrived. Those were some of the main takeaways from this year's MIPCOM, the international TV market that wraps Friday in Cannes.

Personality of the year award recipient Simon Cowell was honored for the ways he changed both television and music — and reinvented the non-scripted formats genre that has populated programming schedules and been a mainstay at MIPCOM for a decade. Inside the Palais, the mood was a bit more somber for reality buyers.

“We’re all looking for next big thing, but aren’t finding it," said Annette Romer, TV2 Denmark’s head of acquisitions and formats, at Wednesday’s formats panel. "All the shows that have launched this year are derivative. There are no game-changers."

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All the attention was on high-end drama, with very few sitcoms, procedurals or soaps to be found. During his super-sized session, director Morgan Spurlock credited the rise of serious fiction for making non-scripted fare look rather cheap, calling out copy-cats like Fox’s Utopia for not challenging viewers.

A+E Networks had a very busy market selling their made-for-TV film fare widely across Europe, but executive vp international Sean Cohan believes viewers' desire for mid-range shows is being ignored. “With this scripted move that everyone’s making, including viewers, there’s a taste for the crème de la crème that a lot of us are chasing, but there’s still a taste for the procedural, and that’s not being served by the industry,” he said.

“It's all downers with stars,” noted one veteran European buyer on the abundance of big names attached to mostly earnest series.

Indeed, the dramatic phenom was everywhere to be seen, whether on network shows like ABC's How to Get Away With Murder, Fox's mystery series Wayward Pines and NBC's period thriller Aquarius, or cable and online-only fare such as AMC's upcoming Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul and Netflix's period drama Marco Polo.

“Every channel is looking for a channel-defining drama show,” said Jan Mojto, head of production and sales group Beta Cinema, who produce Netflix series Borgia and have boarded Tom Tykwer's 1920s crime drama Babylon Berlin.

“There is always going to be a business for reality television,” said Masterchef judge Joe Bastianich, who used MIPCOM to launch his new TV production shingle. But with many U.S networks pulling back or out of reality TV, he admitted there has been “an evolution in the category. People like us who are either participating in or creating reality formats have to up our game to stay relevant.”

Staying relevant was also the catchphrase for broadcast networks, who found themselves on the wrong side of the cool-o-meter as online services and MCNs bragged about their rapid growth rates and massive (and young) audience base. Spurlock and former YouTube southeast Asia head of content Amit Agrawal all touted short-form video as the future.

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What these new masters of the universe — like Charles Zhang of China's Sohu.com, or Maker Studios CEO Ynon Kreiz — neglected to mention is that their revenue per user is often miniscule and far behind that of traditional TV. Spurlock touted his upcoming Smartish network, calling short form “more lucrative” for filmmakers, but of course that’s backed by Disney dollars.

Still, new mobile and online deals were the buzz of the bunker. Carriage deals for established channels across new platforms were one of the biggest growth areas at the market. This year was a " beta version" of connecting channels and platforms, a program that MIPCOM will grow next year, said director of television Laurine Garaude of conference organizer Reed Midem. “We’re looking at developing that as more of a market. There are more platforms being created all the time and many more opportunities,” she said. The platforms with deep pockets nearly doubled this year to 200 at the market.

Chinese platforms were snapping up international content — their delegation topped 100 companies, including everything from regional television and movie channels to online goliaths Sohu.com and YoukuTudou.

“We felt strongly during this show that the technology questions were less the topic and it is really getting the content on all of the platforms," said Garaude. "There’s much less anxiety about technology. Everyone’s embracing it. It’s part of the overall picture now."

While the windowing question remains to be answered as viewers seemingly unquenchable thirst for content expands to all devices, buyers are doing more business around it.

Anne Sweeney, outgoing president of the Disney–ABC Television Group, argued that old-school linear TV still has its place. She said hit shows like Shonda RhimesScandal and How to Get Away With Murder have become the drama equivalent of live sports, as fans avoid time-shifting in order to watch — and tweet — about their favorite shows together.

It's ironic, then, that Sweeney herself, who is stepping down to pursue a career as a TV director, appears to be following the advice of Sohu.com's Zhang. In his keynote to industry execs at MIPCOM, the Chinese Internet entrepreneur said that instead of trying to compete with online video companies, broadcasters should “jump to the right side of history” by quitting their jobs and making content themselves.