What Do Europeans Want?
TV producers overseas try to emulate the success of rival US production companies. TELEVISION
AFTER decades of quite significant dependence on American programming, European broadcasters are actively searching for a new identity of their own. While this in no way implies an exclusion of United States movies and shows, it nevertheless puts a new financial and creative emphasis on inter-European production and practical cooperation. This emphasis is born both of a vision of a new European commercial order after 1992, when the trade barriers are supposed to come down in the Common Market, and a growing sense that steps have to be taken to nurture and protect European production, which is perceived as being ``stunted'' by the force and weight of American competition.
European thinking, once almost totally divided by national attitudes, has coalesced, as was demonstrated at the television trade fair, MIPCOM, in Cannes. MIPCOM is where international television executives by the thousands come to buy and sell.
The Americans do very well because the demand for Hollywood programming continues to be high. As the number of stations increases, and cable and satellite services expand, the European appetite for programs becomes voracious.
Within two years, it is estimated, the amount of TV hours will double from the current 250,000 to more than 500,000 hours annually.
European stations thrive on all kinds of US shows, from films to sit-coms and even transplanted talk shows.
More and more, the talk in Europe is of co-production among countries, with the Americans frequently involved as potential partners.
Co-production is seen broadening the financial base of European production and providing the expanded market which the French, the Italians, the Germans, and the British say they badly need to survive rising productions costs. Co-production is also a weapon against quotas imposed on American-produced shows.
Michael von Wolkenstein, the president of Satel, the leading production company in Austria, with branches in Germany and England, said, ``We go out actively looking for coproduction partners. I am against quotas. I think coproduction is the answer and the future, and it will give Eumropean production a new lease on life.''
The Americans, too, are benefiting from the rapid growth of television on the continent. According to Michael Jay Solomon, the president of Warner Brothers International, the US income from sales to European cable and satellites alone will reach the $10.5 billion mark by 1995, more than doubling the current level.
While the evidence points to European audiences' fascination with Hollywood form and content - and want more rather than less of it - European producers and broadcasters argue that, presented with enough locally produced quality shows, the European public would be quite content with, and possibly prefer, a reasonable mixture.
``Why is it that, in virtually all countries in Europe, the top shows are not American, but are locally produced,'' asked Michel Mitrani, a French producer/director.
``American culture fascinates and entertains us. It has always done so, but it shouldn't be allowed to eradicate or even diminish our own culture. We have every right, even a responsibility, to protect it.''
While many Europeans see their future in cross-frontier financial and artistic collaboration, (exploiting a market which in size actually surpasses the potential North American one), they are also aware of Hollywood's magnetic attraction. That magnetism often makes local movies seem drab and plodding by comparison.
The Europeans also complained about stations luring viewers with American-made television. Dominic Serafini, publisher of Video Age International, a TV trade publication, commented:
``They play these pictures only because people want to see them. These stations are in a ratings war. American movies are their best weapons. That's true in France, in Italy, and most other places in Europe.''
European producers are also not above deliberate attempts to copy the Hollywood formula. Although with co-production, more production companies may simply hire Hollywood consultants.
Vivien Wallace, chief executive of Britain's Granada Television International, says her company has formed a production consortium with a French and a German network.
The new group has appointed an American to head the company and to help give its films that ``American commercial touch,'' which holds the promise of potential success.
``There is a great eagerness on the part of the Europeans to learn from the Americans how to make programs that attract ratings,'' Miss Wallace said.
It is this new consciousness of ratings (which measure the competitive popularity of a given program) along with the strong demand for programs, that is in part changing the European television landscape, and is seen boosting the outlook for European co-production.
There are those who argue that, once European co-production becomes routine, it could well eliminate the need to involve the Americans, though Hollywood has its own economic reasons for wanting to be involved and to give its films a multinational identity.
Europe matters these days, when better than half of Hollywood's income derives from business abroad, a large percentage of it from the continent.
``I can foresee the day when we'll be involved in projects for which the American market will be a secondary consideration,'' notes William E. Miller, the president of Hearst Entertainment.
Jan Mojto, the general manager of Germany's huge Beta company, acknowledges that there is still a language barrier in Europe but adds: ``People prefer to see programs from their own country, but they are starting to let in their neighbors.
``It's a promising beginning. We are at the start of something quite new and very exciting,'' she said.