MIPCOM: Series sizzle

A plethora of dramas could spark buying on the Croisette

Will they go for "Glee," push the button for "FlashForward" or beg for "Mercy"? That's just one of the key questions to be answered as 12,000 TV executives trek to Cannes for the 25th annual Riviera rendezvous known as MIPCOM.

The above-mentioned U.S. series -- from Fox, Disney and Universal, respectively -- are among the prime content that program buyers from around the world will be eyeballing -- and in some cases loosening their purse strings to acquire -- during the five-day sales bazaar.

An even bigger issue is the prices for content that buyers are prepared to pay, given just how hard-hit many have been by the global recession and their own advertising slumps.

The six Hollywood heavyweight suppliers -- Warners, Disney, Fox, CBS, Universal and Sony -- jointly rake in upward of $8 billion a year from their sales of shows and movies to foreign free and pay TV outlets. Given the pressures their parent conglomerates are under to grow their business and offset deficits of all kinds, much is riding on efforts to keep those international TV numbers up.

That's not an easy task because two of Tinseltown's prime markets, Canada and the U.K., have been particularly soft of late: The big bucks are still being forked out for top-tier Yank shows, but everything else is getting short-shrifted.

There are challenges elsewhere, too. From Munich to Manila most terrestrial broadcasters (still the biggest spenders for Hollywood content) have been buffeted by the global downturn, with stock prices dashed, ad revenue dented and their business models discombobulated.

Still, all will not be glum on the Croisette -- sun, sea and champagne will see to that. And every Hollywood major points to how well the business holds up even in recession: Resilient if not robust is how they variously describe it.

It helps, too, that this fall's new crop of series has gotten the thumbs-up from key foreign buyers already -- even before much ratings data is in from the start of the fall season stateside. Disney's "FlashForward," for example, has already sewn up a dozen deals in Europe and as many in Asia.

"The business has held up despite the worldwide downturn in advertising," is how CBS Studios International TV president Armando Nunez assesses it. "Pricing is pressured -- don't get me wrong -- but the top shows still command strong license fees."

Nunez's trump suit is "NCIS: Los Angeles," the spinoff of the Mark Harmon-toplined legal drama.

His counterpart at Fox, Marion Edwards, points to the relief that U.S. sellers felt in the aftermath of the L.A. Screenings in June, as foreign buyers instantly warmed to new U.S. shows, even if signing on the dotted line may not happen for months.

"The international business is difficult right now, what with evolving business models and figuring out what to charge for additional ways of assessing product," Edwards says. "We live in a noisy culture, so even the best shows need plenty of promotional and marketing support to attract audiences in whatever market."

Fox's "Glee," Edwards points out, seemingly fits the bill for what foreign buyers oft say they want: Upbeat fare that can appeal across demos in early primetime.

Warners, too, came off the Screenings with a hot hand, led by "The Vampire Diaries," "Forgotten" (retooled during the summer with Christian Slater in the lead role), "Human Target" and "V."

Says Warners International TV president Jeffrey Schlesinger: "It's a positive sign that several sought-after shows have already gotten deals in the U.K., including our own 'Vampire Diaries' (with ITV2) as well as Disney's 'FlashForward,' with C5."

In most other major territories Warners, and other majors, have multiyear volume deals with key broadcasters, and hence are shielded from short-term swings in the economy. Warners, for instance, switched horses in Germany recently, inking a multiyear pact with RTL on healthy terms and extended its deal in Oz with the Nine Network for a similarly buoyant price.

But there comes a reckoning in the next three months: Once a broadcaster has selected the required quota of series it must take from a U.S. supplier (typically the shows that get back-nine orders for a full season) those series left out in the cold will have to find homes on the open market in each territory. That's when deals get tricky and prices get tamped.

Over at Disney, top international TV exec Ben Pyne sees glimmers of light in the foreign landscape.

"The economy is starting to pick up here and there, and American programming continues to play an important role in almost every broadcaster's schedule," Pyne says.

Even when foreign broadcasters make their own shows, many of them flop just as they do stateside. "Buying a likely successful American show is definitely cost-effective in filling out a local schedule," Pyne says.

MGM's Gary Marenzi, who sells the bonds abroad as well as this go-round the action-accented sci-fier "Stargate Universe," thinks the MIPCOM market will be focused and productive.

"Last MIPCOM it was deer-in-the-headlights time, what with the meltdown happening on Wall Street, and then broadcasters abroad had to deal with their own layoffs and management challenges. Now they've got their budgets set and their new teams in place. Things are more settled," he says.

Plus, the Lion exec adds, "many of these broadcasters have burned off their excess inventory: They need new shows."

And voila.

Several other trends were also pinpointed by the American contingent, all of which are attempts to buttress the bread-and-butter revenues from traditional program sales:

> Hollywood's local production efforts in foreign territories are kicking into a higher gear, with Warner Bros. the latest to set up shop in London to get key localized series going in Europe.

> Hollywood's international channels business -- Sony's AXN, E!, MGM Networks, Discovery, A&E among them -- are clinching carriage deals around the world at a furious clip, and most say they're making money at it, even if ad revenues on these satcast services have recently taken a hit. Fox International Channels in particular is reinvigorating its operations in Asia and integrating satcaster Star into its operations.

> Beyond network dramas and sitcoms, the key U.S. suppliers come to market with an ever more varied array of cable, reality and alternative fare, whose quality compares favorably with broadcast standards -- and whose costs to make are lower. CBS Studios is minting big bucks with its "America's Next Top Model" format and Showtime dramas "Californication" and "Nurse Jackie." Disney is ringing up the register with tween-targeted ABC Family fare like "10 Things I Hate About You."

> Windowing is becoming a much more dynamic, quick-paced effort in the international TV business. Pyne, for example, points to current efforts to get episodes of "FlashForward" dubbed quickly for Spain's Cuatro, so that lag time between stateside and abroad is minimized.

"We're trying to give the consumer, wherever he is, the best possible experience as soon as possible, through VOD, SVOD, broadband catch-up, over-the-top, mobile -- whatever -- and at the same time maximize our share of the revenues from it," is how Pyne put it.

Finally, as will likely be clear from the beehive of new program buyers buzzing around the Palais in Cannes, there's an explosion of digital channels coming onstream, from France to the Philippines. And yes, perhaps more than the established broadcasters, they need content.

"We are seeing prices under pressure with some of our mainstream clients but we're starting to get unanticipated revenue from these new services. The money's not huge but it helps make up for shortfalls here and there," Schlesinger says.