Many producers and distributors, especially those in North America, have a mental image of Eastern Europe that makes Tolstoy look like Walt Disney by comparison. The truth is a lot less dreary. Eastern Europe has always held potential for those willing to make the effort, and the prospects for the future look even brighter.
For those unfamiliar with the region, the U.S. and Western European broadcast models translate well behind the former Iron Curtain, except for one aspect – license fees. While the markets are well developed, especially the terrestrials, the viewing population hasn’t grown enough to support Western-level pricing. Eastern Europe, however, does compare favorably well with Australia and New Zealand, and out-pays Latin America and the Middle East in most cases.
As far as content is concerned, terrestrials in the region are much like their Western counterparts. Natural history, the unexplained and mysteries, as well as science and technology all do well. However, just like their U.S. counterparts, few terrestrials have air time for anything more than hour-long specials, or at best, a three-part series. The big networks are especially interested in one-offs done in the U.S. style.
Lise Romanoff, managing director of California-based Vision Films, has traditionally done a lot of work in the region, but has given it even more attention since the bottom fell out of the Asian market two years ago. ‘My philosophy has always been to maximize and sell,’ she explains, ‘and try every channel in the world.’
One thing which she appreciates when dealing with the Eastern European outlets is the hands-on nature of the business. The people with whom she does her deals are often the owners or operators of the channel, and while it’s rare in other parts of the world, in Eastern Europe she gets to help broadcasters build their schedules. Another bonus is that broadcasters generally handle their own dubbing or sub-titling.
Those who were doing business in the Communist era might be surprised by the network of contacts they’re already plugged into. According to Yvonne Body, vice president of international sales at New York’s Tapestry International, ‘most of the people who are at the private channels, or the cable channels, used to work for the public broadcasters. So, it’s the same people. They’re just in different position in a lot of cases.’ Body worked at Canada’s pubcaster, the CBC, until two years ago.
Besides the pubcasters and the terrestrials, cable is an important and growing player in Eastern Europe, and is expected to become an even more dominant in the future. Unlike the terrestrials, the cable outlets tend to prefer series to help flush out schedules, but distributors should pay close attention to their contracts, as deals tend to spill over into more than a single region.
Among some of the cable operators working in the region are: HBO, which has outlets in Poland, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. (While each outlet now buys individually, the push is on for them to consolidate their buying activities); French broadcaster Planete also has a Polish service; Canal+ is in Poland, Scandinavia and Benelux; and London’s Zone Vision Group has launched E! Entertainment into Poland (to accompany their soap opera channel, dubbed Romantica). National Geographic is also in Poland (with almost a million viewers), Hungary (at over 600,000) and eight other smaller territories.
Discovery is one of the biggest cable players in the region, and judging by the territories for which they demand exclusivity, they appear to be contemplating even more inroads. A deal with Discovery Europe guarantees exclusivity to cable and satellite for Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the CIS, as well as non-exclusive rights in the remaining areas of the footprint (Bulgaria, Baltic States, Croatia, Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Albania and Macedonia).
While a deal with a cable broadcaster might tie up rights in more than one region, it is important to remember that terrestrial rights are unaffected in most deals, and can be a lucrative secondary market. In Eastern Europe, terrestrials don’t consider cable as competition yet, and are not bothered if a program has already gone to air. Distributors can make an extra thousand dollars U.S. per territory, if they’re willing to do the leg work.
Local distributors will do the work for you, buying up rights for the entire region in exchange for a single fee, but these middlemen take quite a bite. Often they only pay the equivalent of one territory’s fee for the entire region.
For those just breaking into the region, two festivals attract an especially large number of Eastern European broadcasters and buyers: the Monte Carlo Television Festival in February, and discop, which takes place every year in June. The Monte Carlo festival has gone out of its way to attract those buyers, and also looks to be increasing its factual focus. discop also offers a good opportunity, although it’s easy for non-fiction programmers to be swallowed up in a sea of drama.
Regardless of what impression outsiders may have, Eastern Europe looks to be an important market, both now and in the future. ‘It’s difficult for me to think of distributors not being there already,’ observes Body. ‘We’ve been dealing with that area for years. I can’t imagine people who wouldn’t have been there already. It’s just never been a territory that’s difficult to sell into.’
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