Preview: MIPCOM 2008
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If any business would appear safe from the worst effects of the current economic tsunami, it is the $7 billion Hollywood studios' international TV sales sector. That, at least, is the view of a bevy of studio executives and international observers.
But as buyers and sellers descend on Cannes for this year's MIPCOM, some wonder if the long-standing strength of the industry has convinced overly optimistic TV execs that money does indeed grow on trees.
On the positive side, buyers have praise for numerous new U.S shows -- notably "Worst Week" and "90210," from CBS Paramount Intl. Television; Joss Whedon's "Dollhouse" and the U.S. remake of the British hit drama "Life on Mars," from Twentieth Century Fox Television; and the Christian Slater starrer "My Own Worst Enemy," from NBC Universal Intl. Distribution. Numerous Warner Bros. shows are also sparking interest, including "The Mentalist" and the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced "Eleventh Hour."
That bodes well following a very patchy Los Angeles Screenings in May, when studio TV product and pilots were stretched thin and buyers didn't get to see many full pilots, as the studios picked themselves up after the WGA strike.
"We didn't have all our pilots in May, and so we were not able to present (new shows) in that grand and entertaining way that we usually do," says Marion Edwards, president of international television at Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution.
To make up for that, some studios -- like Fox, Disney, and indie ShineReveille, which held sales screenings in London last month -- have staged pre-MIPCOM screening events in buyers' own territories.
"We wanted to screen all the pilots and shows that buyers did not get to see in May," Edwards continues. "We will follow that up with at least one screening room at MIPCOM where we will have continuous screenings."
Once those screenings take place, Edwards and her colleagues will know whether there really is a market for their product.
Of course, many top broadcasters like RTL and ProSiebenSat.1 are locked into multiyear deals with their studio partners, so the prices for U.S. product will remain steady. And at the same time, the new deals they are striking are relatively safe.
"Increasingly, our deals are linked to performance," says ProSiebenSat.1 acquisition head Rudiger Boss. "So if the shows don't perform, the cost to us is substantially lower."
But the mood of the German buyers, like that of many others, points to a sound economic base, helped by the fact that the European market has so far weathered the global economic shakeup better than the U.S., with steady ad revenues in most major territories, something that was reflected in a slight uptick in prices for U.S. fare at April's MIPTV.
East of Germany, the markets show no signs of cooling off. Russian broadcaster CTC Media saw profits soar 54% to $90 million in the first half of the year; and Central European channel group CME boasted a dizzying 95% leap in net income, to $68 million, over the same period
In the U.K., however, buyers are likely to be cautious. Following a tide of rising prices in recent years, as blue-chip hits went for millions of dollars per episode, this year may be a turning point, as buyers cool on all but must-have U.S. shows.
"There is an appetite to buy, and we'll say yes for the right shows, but we've got good shows in the pipeline with returning series. Although it would be nice to pick up a few things, we're not desperate," says Jay Kandola, director of acquisitions for Britain's ITV, which has U.K. rights to "Gossip Girl" and "Pushing Daisies."
Despite the recent screenings in London by Disney, Fox and Shine-Reveille that American execs appear to be so high on, some U.K. buyers remain low-key about the fare they have seen so far.
"This isn't the best year in terms of quality," says one buyer who declines to be named. "There are some strong shows, but we've had a season where we had to live without imports, and people have had to work out ways of getting around the need for U.S. shows. The axis has shifted. Studios are going to have a really tough time."
Even with new shows now available and the buying cycle almost back on track, jitters over the economy and fears of a potential actors strike mean that U.K. buyers feel even less secure about the pipeline of American programming that has been their mainstay in recent years.
"Nobody wants an actors strike, and if there were one, it would be catastrophic for the Hollywood economy," Kandola says. "The real pity is that (the studios) had real estate on every single broadcaster, and once those slots go, it's very difficult to get them back."
Nevertheless, American programs continue to intrigue audiences in key markets across the pond.
In Germany, established hits like "House" and "CSI: Miami" perform well on RTL, while ProSieben's "Grey's Anatomy" and "Navy C.I.S." on Sat.1 have retained their loyal fan bases. Still, new entries such as "How I Met Your Mother" (ProSieben) or "My Name Is Earl" (RTL), to name just two, have disappointed.
And in France, established American fare continues to dominate the ratings, with the three "CSI" series, all airing on TF1, maintaining their hold on the top of the ratings charts. Elsewhere, the main terrestrial networks are continuing to snap up new U.S. series despite rising prices.
TF1 is usually the biggest buyer and will air eight new U.S. series this year, including "Private Practice," "Gossip Girl," "Chuck" and "The Sarah Connor Chronicles."
All of which bolsters the confidence of Hollywood execs, unfazed by the aftershocks of Wall Street's continued meltdown.
"There will be a lot going on at MIPCOM, a lot of product for buyers to look at, and we will see the bidding process take off that normally follows the Los Angeles Screenings," predicts Fox's Edwards.
Jeffrey Schlesinger, president of Warner Bros. Intl. Television Distribution, adds: "Most buyers have seen what we have going into MIPCOM, and some of it is on-air already. But in general, those territories that don't already have output deals -- for example, the U.K. -- will be active now that buyers can see more."
Rebecca Leffler in Paris and Mimi Turner in London contributed to this story. Scott Roxborough reported from Cologne.