EVERY year at this time, the ``who's who'' of international television descends on this popular Riviera resort to attend MIP, the world's largest television market.
MIP (Marche International de Programmation) is where the TV industry comes to buy and sell programs. This is where, essentially, the schedule of the next television season is decided.
It is also a quite accurate barometer of where the business of television stands, where it is going, and what the undercurrents are in an industry that faces an exciting and uncertain electronic future.
The MIP, that concluded recently, proved a popular event. According to Xavier Roy, its chief executive, a record 9,500 executives representing 2,141 companies attended. In all, 99 countries were represented.
Mr. Roy, an affable man who presides over this modern Babel with aplomb and remarkably good humor, sees this teeming market as proof of the excellent health enjoyed by the television industry worldwide.
The emphasis here was not on content (which was, in fact, the least-discussed element at MIP), but on sales terms, ratings, and name values.
``They are not here for programming, but simply to do business,'' commented one trade-paper editor.
That was, in fact, an accurate assessment of the tumultuous goings-on in the cavernous Palais du Festival, subdivided into hundreds of viewing booths and sales stands, where monitors ceaselessly flashed TV shows from countries ranging from Bulgaria to China.
With rare exceptions, the term ``quality'' rarely came up, but the local popularity of a show and the names it offered were important sales considerations.
If MIP had a ``theme,'' it was the increased volume of children's programs and, with it, the large number of animated shows. As always, American companies - their series, features, and made-for-television movie libraries - did very well.
Big hit: `Candid Camera' clone
Curiously, the biggest hit here was a Belgian comedy series produced by a Chilean, Boris Portnoy, and patterned after America's old ``Candid Camera'' comedies. Day in and day out, crowds stood in front of a large-screen monitor to laugh aloud at the various episodes.
Within days, the ``Just Kidding'' series sold out worldwide, much to the delight of the rotund Mr. Portnoy, who seemed overwhelmed by his great success.
But this MIP featured a number of undercurrents as significant in their own way as the parade of sports shows, talk shows, comedies, action programs, love stories, and every other type of TV programming imaginable.
For one, there was the evidence of a rising ``European spirit,'' vociferously supported by the French. Alain Carignon, the French Minister of Communications, underscored the importance of greater European unity in the future development of television production and distribution ``to enable the Europeans to compete more effectively on the world market.''
That this European tendency to work toward greater cooperation is definitely under way was evident from the crowds that daily visited the Euro Aim floor. Euro Aim is an organization devoted to helping independent European producers find development financing, arranging for partnerships, and generally encouraging European production.
MIP made clear the frustration of the Europeans on two important levels:
One is their inability to crack the American TV market, which is virtually closed to them except for some documentaries.
The other relates to the large number of American feature films and TV programs imported into Europe.
All of this comes on the heels of the major Hollywood defeat in the GATT (General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs) talks. The Americans wanted a free market, with no quota restrictions and no national subsidies for local production industries.
The European argument, led by France, is that the flood of entertainment programs from the United States to Europe tends to strangle local production companies by depriving them of outlets. The Americans replied that, if European audiences want to see American movies, they have a right to enjoy them.
The European view prevailed.
There are those who maintain that co-production between the Americans and the Europeans is the answer, and MIP saw many discussions toward that end. The quality of many co-productions have been disappointing, however.
An executive of Gaumont, France's production and distribution giant, said bitterly: ``When we do a co-production with the Americans, it usually turns out to be just another US film shot on location in Europe.''
This fits in with the European (particularly the French) argument that American dominance of the European movie market is a direct threat to local production and therefore to national culture - a culture which cannot maintain itself without the income that, increasingly, flows into American pockets.
MIP, managed to generate some excitement also for the popular press through the Duchess of York, who visited briefly in connection with the animated series ``Budgie the Little Helicopter,'' based on her children's books. It's a big hit in Britain.
Another surprise royal visitor was Prince Edward, who is joint managing director of a British production company and who signed his first contract at Cannes.
The 50th anniversary of D-Day received MIP attention when Twentieth Century-Fox announced that it had colorized the 1961 Darryl F. Zanuck epic ``The Longest Day'' and was reissuing it to television and on video.
``The Fall from Grace'' was another new documentary relating the invasion of 50 years ago.
Letterman show in Germany
Much of the talk at MIP revolved around the impact of future electronic innovations like the much-vaunted view-on-demand system, interactive television, the rapid rise of satellite transmissions, and, of course, the expansion of cable. (Cable television has spread much more slowly in Europe than in the US.)
Many at MIP see these innovations coming to Europe much later than to the US. On the other hand, purely American shows are now being shown in Europe. For instance, CBS has sold its ``Late Night with David Letterman'' show to Germany in its original English version.
American game shows are duplicated in many countries, and the ``Sesame Street'' program for children is shown just about everywhere. Local versions are produced with the cooperation of the Children's Television Workshop, which even allows changes in the famous characters. In Germany, for instance, Big Bird is a bear.
MIP certainly underscored the commercial vitality in a Europe that is still in the throes of a recession. Roy called it ``the most active market of the past 10 years.'' Lucrative deals were signed. But apart from demonstrating the industry's fiscal health, the market also brought into focus the rapidly growing competition between the thriving Americans and the struggling Europeans.
It is a struggle that eventually may be resolved by the quality of program content - and that was the very element prominently absent from this market.