Cannes is an odd place to be this week, and the annual Mipcom TV market a curious event, highlighting the fact that – even at a time of military conflict – international business goes on.
The American I shared a cab with from Nice airport would rather have been at home in Los Angeles with his wife, nine-year-old daughter and three gas masks. He said that he was slightly ashamed of having bought them and didn’t believe that they’d be of much use, but said he’d have felt really bad if they had been needed and he hadn’t bothered. And this was before the bombing began in Afghanistan.
He said that many of his compatriots had made the final decision not to attend Mipcom only last week. It wasn’t that they were afraid of flying – though some companies had ordered staff not to travel. Many felt that they should be with their families if terrorist attacks – including the threat of germ warfare – were still possible. Others didn’t want to get stuck on the wrong side of the world if air travel were suddenly to be closed down again.
Though many Americans remain registered for Mipcom, fewer have actually shown up. But while the numbers attending are down, few companies have cancelled their stands. The Mipcom organisers, Reed Midem, said that it had
been expecting 10,700 delegates from 2,585 companies and 86 countries – with the US sending the largest contingent of exhibitors (117 stands), followed by the UK (101) and France (61). They said at the weekend that: “In the light of recent events in the US, only five US exhibitors and – we estimate – 350 participants out of 10,700 have expressed their wish not to attend.”
Even the subsequent withdrawal of the big Japanese group NHK, though serious, didn’t derail the event. For buyers and sellers from most countries, it was business as usual.
At the best of times the selling of television programmes is a strange business – and within that, the kids TV business is perhaps the strangest of all. This week, it all seemed surreal, particularly with Tony Blair’s image popping up on many of the TV channels in the hotel bedrooms – from CNN to the dozen or so Middle East stations. His airtime exposure was rivalled only by Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? on France’s TF1. Mipcom Junior – as the children’s TV event is called – kicked off the week’s buying and selling, with a weekend of screenings, lunches, dinners and conference sessions – all punctuated by blaring trails for new “product” and people wandering around dressed as animated aeroplanes or cartoon dogs.
“Gordon Giraffe is a preschool show that will do for giraffes what Babar did for elephants,” proclaims one leaflet in the mound of publicity material littering the bars and screening rooms of the Martinez hotel. Much of it took on bizarre overtones in the current climate: “The Mummy – unleashing on the world at Mipcom”,”How do you make time for homework, when you’re saving the world?”
However, at the weekend it was hard to escape discussion of the war. One lunch sponsor in his welcome speech regretted the absence of “many friends and colleagues from around the world”. But he also claimed to be part of a silver lining, saying: “Fortunately we are in the entertainment business and we have the opportunity to bring joy to kids and families all over the world.”
It was a sentiment echoed by many in Cannes. The creator of Teletubbies, Ragdoll’s Anne Wood, there to launch a new series of the “super-hero vintage car, Brum”, says: “It’s very tragic, but we have to carry on business as usual, otherwise the baddies – in children’s television terms – will have won.”
There was much debate about the impact the war would have on viewing preferences and the possible backlash against violent cartoons. Michael Hirsh, chief executive of the large Canadian producer and distributor Nelvana, said that on September 11 his company and broadcasters had received e-mails and letters from parents thanking them for their children’s programming, which went out on channels such as Nickelodeon and Disney in the US and Canada.
He says: “All of the over-the-air channels – including PBS [Public Broadcasting Service] – went over totally to the news, so many children tuning in for cartoons would have seen those shots of the planes hitting the towers.”
He adds: “This event drives home a couple of things. One is the usefulness of having all-children’s services as safe havens for kids and, secondly, the value of programmes for kids that are warm and value-laden.”
Hirsh believes that many channels that programme action-adventure shows are seriously questioning what to do. He says: “Interestingly we have a show called Rescue Heroes, which is an action-adventure show, but the heroes are firemen, policemen and ambulance people – the heroes of the rescue field. It’s not a result of the terrorist attack of September 11, but this is the kind of programming that indicates to broadcasters that you can have great action adventure without having the arch-enemy of the world out to destroy the universe, fighting it out in front of the kids.”
Before I left, I bumped into my American again. He’s an agent, buying foreign television series to sell on to American channels, so Mipcom is vital to him. He couldn’t afford to pull out – but he was discovering that the absence of so many other US buyers meant he was getting a clear run. It’s an ill wind.
Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News