TV with foreign accent puts pressure on U.S.


As I walked around the floor of the just-ended NATPE confab or popped into panel discussions, it struck me. The event, once hailed as a pre-eminent place to take the pulse of the vibrant American TV biz, is now a reflection of an industry that's under the weather.

And the ongoing writers strike is just one more symptom of U.S. broadcasting's underlying ills.

Whether one spoke to execs from India's Zee TV or from Latin America, their impressions were similar.

"America is down right now," Zee TV's Pradeep Guha told me, commenting on a market that he knows well but hadn't visited for several years. He's no longer here just to buy: His company recently launched a 24-hour India-inspired wellness channel on Direct TV called Veria.

Similarly, Mariano Kon of Cuatro Cabezas in Buenos Aires is seizing the opportunity in a morphing media landscape to come up with edgy, irreverent content that can travel outside Latin America.

"We've seen young people's growing attachment to all things mobile and portable, and (we are) responding to their tastes," he told a panel during the three-day TV program sales bazaar, which wrapped Thursday in Las Vegas.

The point is, more and more non-U.S. producers and content creators are taking advantage of low-cost technologies, ever-proliferating formats and a perception that America might be, at least momentarily, stumbling to keep its place in the global biz.

The creation of content is much more a global phenom than ever before; there are savvy Ben Silvermans, Phil Gurins and Cecile Frot-Coutazes (three Yanks who "get" the global thing) popping up in countries around the world.

The opening keynote by NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker summed up the mood of the moment stateside: The TV industry needs to be "re-engineered" and "re-imagined" from top to bottom. He and colleagues from other U.S. networks are re-evaluating the wastage in the broadcast system -- from pilots to the upfront to sweeps and producer deals. And judging from some of the quieter discussions going on in Vegas, U.S. networks are busily sifting through scripted and reality ideas from Canada and the U.K. in the hopes of coming up with shows and formats that are more cost-effective.

Not that the U.S. is being eclipsed overnight as the center of the TV world. The Hollywood majors still pocket more of the revenue from international trade in film and TV content than any other country's producers. (The Brits, led by the BBC and Granada, remain a distant second.)

But there's no law that says U.S. dominance will last forever.

At NATPE, as well as at other trade shows like MIPTV and Mipcom in Cannes, the signs already are evident: There's a more level playing field in content creation and greater professionalism in the execution of small-screen content everywhere around the globe. And unlike the international movie biz, in which foreign directors and actors still think of Hollywood as the be-all and end-all for their careers, TV types typically don't feel that awe.

As one panelist put it, ideas now come from every nook and cranny of the world -- from Scandinavia, from Israel, from Brazil, industries that are particularly vibrant right now. Moreover, another speaker said, whatever the origins of any concept or show, there are increasingly sophisticated local producers in every country who are retooling material to fit their own audiences' tastes.

The key questions for them all: Who will be monetizing these new creations? And what will be the revenue splits between the parties involved?