Aided by the explosion of commercial TV channels around the globe, the rapid growth of cable, and a dramatic increase in satellite services, American television shows are dominating the world's airwaves to an astonishing degree. Yet while their popularity is as high as ever, their quality levels are often questioned.
This was evident at the giant television market, MIPCOM (International Film and Programming Market for TV, Video, Cable, and Satellite), held earlier this month at Cannes, France, which attracted a record 9,000 international TV executives from some 91 countries.
They came to engage in the annual ritual of a buying-and-selling spree of TV programs, which also represents a pulse-taking of the industry worldwide.
The main topics of conversation this year included: the need for more children's programs and a notable rise in animation; the decline of the once all-powerful, state-run public television networks; and concern over the impact of media megamergers in the United States, such as Time Warner and Turner Broadcasting, Disney and its new Capital Cities/ABC organization, and the combination of Viacom and Paramount Pictures.
There was also a strongly voiced resentment by European program producers who note a rise in the number of US shows in their countries, but cannot get a foot in the door of the vast American market.
There has been a slight improvement when it comes to documentaries, they say, which are gradually finding a home on US cable channels such as Discovery and Arts & Entertainment, which co-produce with Europeans.
But this doesn't reduce the frustration of men like Joost van Breukelen, a documentary-film producer in the Netherlands who observes that ''you Americans have a kind of conspiracy against European programs: You just don't want to give them a chance, regardless of their quality.''
Mr. van Breukelen is upset by the fact that not only do American program distributors turn down his films, but they also often won't even take the time to view them.
Lenka Smidova of Czech state television argues that ''it isn't fair that the Americans take up as much as 15 percent of our program schedule - and a much higher percentage on the commercial stations - but they won't even consider buying any of our shows.''
Of equal concern to Europeans is the concentration of power implied in the various US media mergers, which puts buyers in a weaker position.
Douste Blazy, France's minister of culture, alluded to this in a speech. He argued that the mergers should generate closer and more effective cooperation among Europeans to meet what he felt was the overpowering American competition.
''Otherwise we are too weak,'' he says.
To a degree, such cooperation already exists. Italian, French, and German companies joined to produce ''The Bible'' miniseries (with a very pricey - for a European production - per-episode budget of $12 million) in Morocco. The series promptly broke records in Italy and won an Emmy in the US, where it has been distributed on TNT.
Arts & Entertainment, the US cable network, has co-produced ''Hitler,'' a documentary with a great deal of previously unseen footage, with ZDF, one of the two German public TV networks. A&E plans to follow up with a series on Hitler's henchmen.
There was a great deal of coproduction discussion at MIPCOM, but these joint ventures - particularly between Europeans and Americans - have not worked out well in the past, according to some Europeans. They complain that the US partner tends to impose its will on everything from script to casting.
MIPCOM, which unfolds in a warren of narrow corridors lined with elaborately decorated booths in the cavernous convention Palais nicknamed ''The Bunker,'' is a mixture of business and fun.
During the day, men and women are crammed into their booths, eagerly discussing the sale of programs; evenings are filled with dinners and elaborate parties.
The MIDEM (Record, Music, Publishing, and Video-Music Market) organization, which runs MIPCOM and arranges other trade fairs, traditionally names a ''Man of the Year.'' This year, it was Pierre Grimblat, who was grandly introduced by Xavier Roy, the suave and diplomatically skilled director-general of the market. Mr. Grimblat is a highly successful French producer who, so far in 1995, has turned out no fewer than 49 TV movies in France and elsewhere in Europe. The creme de la creme of the international TV industry attended the celebratory dinner.
While millions of dollars' worth of TV programs were bought and sold at MIPCOM, it was evident that - this year at least - there were no ''must have'' American TV series.
Also, TV programmers around the world have taken a page from the Americans and are aiming their shows more and more at younger audiences.
''It's not particularly wonderful,'' says Alexander Coridass, a ZDF television executive, ''but it's a trend which we are all following, and which has brought some surprising results.
''For instance, we found we could achieve very good ratings with quality information programs. That's not the kind of programming that would normally appeal to the 18-25 [age] group.''
Gary Marenzi, president of MGM/United Artists International, says young people like to see movies. That is one reason why MGM is introducing a new MGM Gold movie channel in the Far East and plans to do the same in Europe, where NBC's Superchannel is already operating.
The ABC network, now owned by Disney, has a wide range of investments in European cable and other broadcast operations, and the trend points to other US companies going the same route.