Reality shatters West's broadcasting dreams

IF last week's giant broadcasting conference at the Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai could be likened to a television programme it would have to be Blind Date.

The Marche Internationale des Programmes (MIP) conferences, run by the French Reed Midem company, are an institution among Western film and television companies who use them as a marketplace to buy and sell programming. Asian companies had long attended the conferences too, but the regional explosion in cable and satellite television in the past three years meant the area was finally deemed ready for its own MIP.

American and European programme makers come out in hot flushes when they look at Asia's potential and in particular China's 1.3-billion population. If all the burgeoning cable and satellite television systems in the region went on a major buying spree, the programme makers fantasised, existing markets would be left in the dust.

This is where the Blind Date analogy comes in: last week in Wan Chai the two sides, East and West, met on an arranged encounter. Each had heard a lot about the other - a mixture of truth, rumour and exaggeration - but they had never actually met before.

They exchanged polite greetings, and circled politely but warily around each other on the exhibition floor and at the many parties surrounding the three-day conference. Some exchanged telephone numbers, while a smaller number even ended up in bed together. But unfortunately for many, they departed Hong Kong frustrated, swearing they would never return.

The main object of interest was the 53-strong official Chinese delegation drawn from 12 provinces, the largest-ever attending an international television festival.

In the event, a number of deals were made with Chinese stations. But it was clear a lot of programmers felt short-changed. As one Australian commented: 'You get all the hype about China, how 250-million homes are cabled up but the Chinese do not seem to be buying.' By Friday evening, the word among the delegates and media was that the American trio of Warner Brothers, NBC and Worldvision had decided the low level of sales did not justify the expense of flying stall and staff over for next year's MIP Asia. If some of the blame lay with the unrealistic expectations of those new to Asia, it was also clear the state-run, or quasi-official Chinese companies were naive in their dealings with Westerners.

In one example, a Mandarin-speaking journalist covering a contract-signing found he also had to act as a go-between over contract details between the Chinese and an American programmer because of the Chinese failure to provide adequate translators.

It would be wrong to suggest MIP Asia was a failure, or that no deals were done. The internal newspaper, MIP Daily News, was full of agreements finalised in Hong Kong: MTV's distribution deal with Videoland in Taiwan; Ted Turner's TNT and Cartoon Channel's accord with the Bangkok-based UTV cable network; Hong Kong's Cable TV agreement with Walt Disney, MGM/UA and New Line to provide first-run films for its Cineplex movie channels; and France Television's announcement it was in 'advanced' negotiations on a partnership deal with China Central Television that would include programme exchanges, co-productions and technical exchanges.

By the end of last week Reed Midem was sufficiently pleased with events to make it clear the conference would return to Hong Kong next autumn, regarding it as a longer term prospect than the piqued US companies that pledged not to come back.

The last word goes to Reed Midem chief executive Xavier Roy, who said before the conference: 'This might be the start of a pan-Asian market. Certainly Asian buyers and sellers have never had this kind of event on their own doorstep before . . ., We have been telling our regular clients that they should not expect to do extraordinary business in terms of sales this year.'