European TV Looks to US Model
DUE to an odd juxtaposition of attitudes generated by the spread of new technologies, a greater availability of European production money, and the evident desire to create a "European self," Europe's television map is undergoing drastic changes.
Dazzled by the financial success of commercial, advertiser-driven television in the United States, European broadcasters are abandoning past programming concepts. Instead, they are beginning to gauge quality primarily in terms of audience popularity, often borrowing American techniques to achieve their aim.
In turn, American producers have become eager to co-produce with the Europeans, even if it threatens to shift the focus away from networks at home.
There was a time - not too long ago - when most television on the Continent was state-run and, within the quota limitations of individual nations, balanced educational programming against escapist American TV fare of the "Dallas" variety.
Since the Europeans could not then afford to create the kind of entertainment that would profitably cross borders, it was thought that competition with American programs was impossible.
The recent MIPCOM international television market here, which drew some 8,000 producers, distributors, and TV buyers from no fewer than 86 countries, provided dramatic proof of these changes. The old structures are crumbling. New, privately owned commercial stations are springing up everywhere, beaming their programs over the air, transmitting over cable, and radiating from satellites. Pay-per-view TV is also being discussed.
The advertiser-supported channels are frequently profitable, and the lively competition they spark affects not only the state-run services, but also the overall perception of TV broadcasting.
The very Europeans who once looked down their noses on the Americans' panting pursuit of audience ratings, now see some merit in playing the numbers game.
And there has been another, major change. Where US shows once predominated, it's now the local programs that are the viewers' favorites. Further, there has been a sharp increase in inter-European co-production, dominated by a handful of producers in France, Germany, Italy, and Britain who have become huge, rich, and influential, controlling both major networks and the program supply.
Germany's vast Beta Film company is offering some 400 hours of TV shows. It has cut co-production deals with more than a dozen European broadcasters. Canal Plus in France has boosted its production budget. In Britain, the dynamic Granada Group plans to double its output, putting a new emphasis on comedy.
Americans are happily selling their program formats. Game shows like "The Price is Right," so-called "reality" shows, and talk programs are in vogue on European networks.
Even sitcoms, with which the Americans tried for years to tempt European audiences, are now flourishing in local versions, as are the Latin American telenovela soap operas.
None of this new activity implies a sustained quality level. John W. Kraan, the head buyer for the important Dutch NCRV network, said he found MIPCOM lively but barren of good shows.
"It's as if the Americans particularly have lost the spark, the imagination," he says. "I couldn't find anything innovative that really stood out."
As the European television structure changes, so do American attitudes, driven largely by rising production costs at home and the need for more sales income from abroad. There is concern that, in the next couple of years, the new European productions will fill some of the airtime currently occupied by US-made programs, although the crossing of national, cultural, and language frontiers isn't all that easily accomplished.
In a remarkable shift of gears, the US companies are putting much greater emphasis on co-production and co-financing with European producers. Proving their commercial flexibility, the Americans lately have agreed to participate in shows that are of primary appeal to European audiences.
In fact, says Karol Kulik, the Brussels-based director of Europe Aim, which supports and nurtures European independents, "you might say the Americans are now courting the Europeans."
Bill Miller, the president of Hearst International, has argued that US companies should accommodate European producers rather than - as in the past - use their financial clout to dictate the shape of co-productions so as to create a product likely to appeal in America.
"There will be more and more international co-production," Mr. Miller says. "We are determined to create films and programs that appeal internationally, but also have a chance on American TV. The future lies in that combination."
This new direction is dictated to a degree by circumstances. Some American TV fare, particularly series, once hugely popular in Europe, has dropped sharply in popularity and broadcasters, like the Berlusconi network in Italy, no longer buy many of them.