Can American TV Stay on Top of the Market?

AFTER enormous success in the 1980s - when American movies and television series penetrated just about every corner of the world - TV and film companies in the United States face lowered expectations and dimmer prospects of an export boom in the '90s. American shows, with their scripts, crackling pace, and star value, still attract vast audiences, but the glamour is gradually wearing off. The ability of US entertainment companies to capture the world's audiences is also generating a host of problems.

These issues were evident at the recent MIP (March'e International de Programmation), where some 8,000 television executives from more than 90 countries congregated at the world's biggest international television market.

There was buying and selling, of course, but conversations at the market also brought to the surface the strains and stresses of an industry undergoing deep cultural, political, and technological changes.

On the face of it, the figures favor Hollywood.

Everywhere in the world, and particularly in Eastern Europe, there has been a veritable explosion of new television channels which, in the past, had been controlled by the state. The growth of cable channels also creates an unprecedented demand for programs.

Last year, according to CIT, a London research firm, Europe alone had 133.5 million TV homes that consumed some 573,000 hours of programming. That represented a 20 percent increase over 1989, and of no less than 76 percent over 1988. There is likely to be another 9 percent expansion by next year.

Not surprisingly, local European program output is expected to rise by 9 percent during this year alone.

American sales to European stations and networks are estimated to have run to $2.8 billion last year and could well rise to $5 billion or more within the next four years.

William Saunders, the president of Twentieth Century-Fox International, says the year ending in July ``will be our absolute record in foreign sales.''

Curiously, this steep success curve is beginning to level off.

An observer of the international TV scene, Xavier Roy, the MIP chief executive, points to the hectic market activity, but also noted that the international TV business ``seems to be entering a new and somewhat different phase.''

The signposts of TV's future are fairly clearly marked.

In virtually all of the European countries, the top-rated shows are the local ones, not American. In Holland, for instance, out of the top 25 programs, 21 were actually produced locally.

In Italy, the once-popular American series have dropped considerably in their popularity.

In England, not one of the top 10 TV programs originated in the US. ``Not only does American comedy not travel all that well, we are also making the kind of programs in Britain which the Americans used to send us. Naturally, our audiences frequently prefer the British backgrounds, particularly since the shows are well done. We have learned something from the Yanks,'' says David Plowright, the president of Granada Television International.

The huge American success in selling shows has angered Europeans, who feel their products are shut out of the American market.

In the past, this resulted in talk about more stringent quotas - limits on the number of American programs that could be aired in a particular country. The trend now is toward European production companies coproducing shows to appeal to the entire continent.

To the Americans, of course, the growing volume of inter-European coproductions represents a market threat that is only compensated for by the expanding number of outlets. So American companies are increasingly studying coproduction ventures, which could also get them around the quota problem.

Several European countries are involved in the production of ``Riviera,'' the first inter-European soap opera. Its performance across Europe is being anxiously watched by the Americans, many of whom feel that the Europeans can't effectively compete with Hollywood on the script level and who also cling to the notion that cultural and language barriers on the Continent are likely to prevent a wide acceptance of coproductions.

Already, the Americans are setting their eyes on new frontiers. Japan shows very few American programs at the moment (although the Japanese own two major US movie studios - Columbia and Universal).

Beckoning to Hollywood are the Soviet Union and the Eastern European countries. An American company has just announced a six-hour mini series to be made with the Soviets and to be called, ``Shadow Over Moscow.''

The Middle East is beginning to open up to US companies. Israeli distributors report an intense interest in American movies and shows on the part of the new Soviet immigrants. Israeli television routinely subtitles its programs in Arabic and Russian.

At MIP, the Europeans talked about ``a new identity,'' which they felt would allow them to compete with the Americans and which they hope can reduce the flood of American shows.

American sales executives are convinced that, unless tremendous changes occur, the Hollywood formula will remain supreme. The Europeans aren't so sure.

``The reality of a unified European market is already here,'' Jan Majto, managing director of the German Kirsch Gruppe, told Variety, a trade publication. ``European television is undergoing its greatest change since it started.''

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