CANNES - It'll be up to the courts -- and News Corp. -- to decide whether Fox will really go off the air and become a subscription-only service, as News Corp. President Chase Carey this week said it might if online streaming services such as Barry Diller's Aereo aren't made illegal. But whatever distribution model wins out in the rapidly shifting TV world, it's clear that when it comes to content, cable is king.
It used to be that MIPTV, the world's biggest television market taking place in Cannes this week, was all about the networks. Global broadcasters swarmed the Croisette buzzing about the new season of CBS' Criminal Minds and The Big Bang Theory or ABC's Desperate Housewives.
This year, the shows generating the most heat on the Cote d'Azur are cable fare: A&E's creepy pre-Psycho horror tale Bates Motel, FX's political drama Tyrant, for which Ang Lee is shooting the pilot, or returning non-broadcast hits like AMC's The Walking Dead and Showtime's Homeland. The only new network show getting similar attention is Hannibal, NBC's criminal procedural which has the look and feel of an AMC or HBO series.
The traditionally conservative international marketplace, it appears, is opening up to cutting edge U.S. drama.
“We are seeing the demand is there for higher-end drama programming in a way it wasn't before,” says John Morayniss, CEO eOne Television Group whose productions include AMC's Hell on Wheels, SyFy's Haven and DirectTV's Rogue. “The big free-TV networks still like those big procedurals but because there are more platforms, cable networks and digital channels in every territory that are trying to distinguish themselves, they are all looking for something different, for the cable-type shows, shows that would see on HBO, on Showtime, on AMC or FX.”
Even Europe's free-to-air channels, traditionally risk-adverse, are getting edgier. Homeland is a hit on Germany's Sat.1 and Channel 4 in the U.K. The Walking Dead has sold to 120 countries and pulls in audiences not only on pay and digital networks but on wide-reach broadcasters including Ireland's RTE, Britain's Channel 5 and German commercial net RTL2.
“I think the TV story of 2013 is going to be the effect that those cable shows -- Walking Dead, Homeland, Sons of Anarchy -- are going to have effect the broadcast landscape,” says Bert Salke, president of 20th Century Fox's cable production arm Fox 21. “The best rated drama show in American right now is The Walking Dead, a show that ostensibly is available to far fewer people than a CBS, NBC, Fox or ABC show but it's frankly killing... I live with a woman who programs a network (wife Jennifer Nicholson Salke, entertainment president at NBC). I know she feels compelled to keep up with that and you are going to see, I think, this is going to be a watermark year for changes the networks are going to have to make".
Another major shift on the international side is the rise of scripted reality. It's no secret that the off-network success of shows such as A&E's Duck Dynasty, BET's Real Husbands of Hollywood or TLC's Here Comes Honey Boo Boo have driven affiliate budgets away from syndication deals with the networks towards investments in non-fiction. "You can get five reality hits for the price of one network syndication deal -- and they'll probably beat it in the ratings too," commented one reality TV producer in Cannes.
Now those same reality hits are going global. Geordie Shore, MTV Networks Europe's English take on the Jersey Shore, is already into its fourth season. Pawn Stars U.K., a Brit version of History channel's factual blockbuster set in a family-owned pawn shop on the Welsh/English border, goes out this autumn.
"You're seeing these cable formats being spun off as original series internationally -- the format business is becoming more cable driven and not just finished tapes," says John Pollak, president of independent production and distribution group Electus International.
A sign of the times was seeing Kevin Hart, creator and star of BET's Real Husbands of Hollywood, at MIPTV to promote the scripted reality series to global broadcasters.
"This is the first (original commissioned) show BET has ever had that has sold internationally. I'm in Cannes, France selling this show. It's ground breaking," Hart told The Hollywood Reporter.
As the cable networks break new ground globally, the broadcasters are feeling the world shift beneath their feet. And over the Aereo.