Cannes, France— The United States may not be winning any popularity contests in France right now (or vice versa, for that matter). But in one little patch of the country, U.S. cable network executives were greatly missed over the last week.
Officials from the American networks were conspicuous by their absence at the annual MIP-TV program market here, where the programming industry around the world descends to buy and sell TV shows every spring.
Sales teams trying to proffer programming for the services were generally present — particularly those located in offices beyond U.S. shores. That wasn't necessarily true for those in the acquisitions or co-production lines.
Some missing Americans said they were concerned about leaving their children as the war in Iraq exploded. Others didn't come as part of a larger corporate mandate.
Apparently, one TV executive was threatened with boyfriend divorce if she even thought about stepping on a plane.
Some distributors ended up with gaping holes in their dance cards that needed to be refilled at the last minute.
Why not go?
U.S. network executives who did show up were at times surprised and disappointed by the no shows. All in all, because of the threat of terrorism at home, it might have been safer to be in the south of France than in the major urban U.S. hubs where most of the executives live — particularly given France's anti-American stance on the war.
There were bright sides. Buyers had higher hopes of snapping up the next little program gem before rivals had a chance to see it. Sushi lovers expected a much easier time getting a seat at their favorite restaurant, given the huge number of Japanese-executive no-shows.
And at least nine American networks were present and accounted for — including Court TV, the Cartoon Network, Trio, WE: Women's Entertainment, Tech TV and Metro.
But about six other network groups were complete no shows, such as U.S. services from Discovery, National Geographic and Scripps Networks, as well as Oxygen.
Ranks at other networks were decidedly thinned — including MTV Networks' domestic U.S. staff.
Some exhibits were downright spooky. Discovery, which has won awards for its splashy booth designs and is generally a hubbub of activity, looked like a ghost town on Wednesday afternoon, two days into the show. Ditto for Scripps' much more modest booth space.
Major corridors of the Palais des Festivals, where the market is held, were well-populated. The war's effects were seen elsewhere. The Palais section where major Japanese distributors exhibit was almost entirely deserted. A hand-scrawled sign prominently displayed in Nippon Television Network's booth referred to "recent events" as the reason for its staff to stay home.
Many assumed that for Asians, "events" also included the deadly respiratory virus that has been spread through air travel from such countries as China and Singapore to the West.
The number of social gatherings was decidedly thinned. The party-hardy stalwart Hallmark Channel dropped plans for its regular evening cocktail party — particularly as Hallmark Entertainment president Robert Halmi Jr. canceled his plans to attend MIP at the last minute.
Some soirees, such as Tech TV's, were packed. And one executive complained that the hors d'oeuvre table at the opening night MIP-TV reception was licked so clean, so early on, that the table was shiny.
Missing MIP meant more than just giving up a chance to play on the Riviera. It's clear that the market serves an increasingly important role for all cable networks as they try to find less expensive and more creative programming to meet increasingly difficult pricing pressures — at a time when the battle to attract subscribers and (by extension) advertisers has become more fierce.
Making matters all the more crucial, many of the most successful reality shows have originated overseas (think American Idol, Survivor
and The Weakest Link).
But the biggest reality show for most people there was watching events in Iraq unfold on BBC World and CNN International — and the more critical perspective provided by French television.
Attendance was off 10 percent to 20 percent, according to guesstimates from some longtime MIP observers, such as Bill Simon, managing director of the global entertainment and media practice at the executive search firm Korn/Ferry International. In fact, the official figures from the show's organizer, MIDEM, showed about a 10 percent drop, from just over 10,000 attendees at MIP 2002 to about 9,000 last week.
It's not like the sky is falling for U.S. networks that didn't make it. Executives can wait for overseas program distributors come to the States to deliver their pitches.
"But it's spastic" that way, said Judith Orlowski, vice president of program planning and acquisitions at WE, who had a particular eye out for format and reality TV opportunities.
"You don't get all the ideas at one time and have a chance to regurgitate it for other people in the office."
Added Terry Kalagian, vice president of programming at Cartoon Networks International: "The value of the international market is the quantity of programming that comes out of them."
Noted MTV: Music Television vice president of co-productions Elizabeth Skoler, "It's the face-to-face meetings that are indispensable."
This much was clear. "If you were counting on MIP to see the American buyers, your spirits were definitely dampened," said Gary Lico, CEO of the Connecticut-based distribution company Cable Ready Corp.
"But the benefit is, the networks will probably be more attentive when I get back," he added. "I'll probably be on the shuttle to D.C. next week."