These are unsettling times for pan-European television stations
They’ve spent a decade struggling to create a market. Now they face
another huge challenge - digital. Pan-European channels like MTV and
Eurosport are essentially children of television’s first Big Bang, the
explosion that introduced what now seems a modest level of multichannel
television to Europe, via cable in some markets and direct-to-home
satellite in others.
Digital is Big Bang number two and it could make the first seem like a
very small firecracker in comparison. It brings with it a whole new set
of questions for international broadcasters.
As with digital now, the advent of satellite television a decade ago
filled a thousand conference halls with enthusiastic theorists - and the
most popular and persistent supposition was that we would see
international broadcasting boundaries utterly erased.
There would be a dozen or more massive pan-European channels, networks
for a United States of Europe. Everyone else - notably the previously
dominant national networks - would be left scrambling for crumbs. One of
the most misguided projects to take this as its guiding premise
originally involved both the BBC and ITV. Back then people still
believed that Britain made the best television in the world. So it would
be criminal to deprive Johnny Foreigner of the best of British, wouldn’t
The embodiment of that assumption was called Superchannel. It was
heralded as the flagship of European broadcasting. Over the years it
changed hands many times, its programming mutating each time. Earlier
this year, it evolved into National Geographic Television. This is
hugely ironic: the future of European TV ending up as the moving picture
version of one of the oldest international print titles.
Over the last decade, theories have come and gone. The most persistent
has been that pan-European channels can successfully service niche areas
in which there’s a common international language like pop, sport or
children’s TV. Or news, perhaps.
Recently, though, even that theory has begun to look tired. Take MTV:
music as a common language? The Germans love techno, while the UK is
still stuck on the twangy guitars of indie. Younger viewers like to hear
presenters using local slang, an argot almost impenetrable to outsiders.
That’s why MTV has had such a tough fight with the local German music
channel, Viva. And with local music channels in just about any other
market you care to mention.
Digital, with its massively increased channel capacity and reduced entry
costs for new players, could see more local heroes lining up to take a
piece of the MTV action. Ditto Eurosport, or CNN or the Cartoon
They’ve known this for years, of course, and have been firefighting
where the challenge has been most threatening.
But recently, with digital in the offing, some have decided to reinvent
themselves completely. Forget pan-European, the phrase these days is
’multi local’. MTV Europe has been in the forefront of this, looking to
the digital future earlier than most.
Over the last two years it has been fragmenting. Whereas previously MTV
was a monolithic pan-Euro channel - one feed, in English, for the whole
continent - it is now several channels, each serving a sub-region of
Europe with a focus on one hub country. Thus the UK and Ireland service;
a Scandinavian service in Swedish; a German-language channel serving
Germany, Austria and Switzerland; and an Italian channel. Other tailored
services are on the way, with France and Spain a priority.
MTV is not alone in this. The other relative success over the last
decade has been Eurosport. This was initially set up by the European
Broadcasting Union (EBU) to take advantage of sporting rights that its
members had already paid for but couldn’t fully utilise. EBU stations
might have paid to televise a tennis tournament in, say, Frankfurt but
terrestrial broadcasters were never going to broadcast the whole
tournament. They didn’t have the room; Eurosport does. Sport is
unarguably an international language but even Eurosport has come to
recognise the Des Lynam factor - pundits, personalities and commentators
with an individual voice can also drive ratings.
Eurosport’s ad sales director, Tom Keaveny, states: ’We are under less
pressure from national sports channels because where they exist they
tend to be small-audience subscription channels - which isn’t always
good for advertisers or the sports themselves. But there is no harm in
tailoring the service.’ Eurosport also realised that if Rusedski is
playing Henman in Frankfurt, UK viewers will not be best pleased at
having to watch Boris Becker instead just because Eurosport has more
German viewers. French and Scandinavian hybrids have already been
launched and a UK version is on the horizon.
The Children’s Channel is moving to a mix and match strategy too - in
addition to its pan-European feed in English (taken by the UK, where it
is the third most-watched cable and satellite channel), it has feeds in
Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Italian, French, Spanish and Polish, plus a
branded programme block running on terrestrial TV in Hungary.
But the situation is more problematic for its Time-Warner stablemate,
CNN. The whole raison d’etre of this operation is global news and though
it has made efforts to improve its previous track record as a channel
that shows you the world from a US perspective, it can’t decentralise
too radically and still keep its USP. Enquiries about digital strategy
are met with a terse ’the company does not wish to comment at this
stage,’ but even CNN is rumoured to be moving on - it has already signed
a deal with a local Spanish broadcaster and other deals are believed to
be in the pipeline.
Only business and finance channels like Bloomberg and CNBC seem totally
unperturbed. These are all about numbers and dollar signs - and that
really is a universal language.
All of which has led many commentators to suggest that pan-European TV
is dead. Others would go as far as to say that we’ve already seen the
high-water mark of international channels; that they were an interim
solution, a historical accident.
We are only just starting to appreciate how parochial television really
is. Non-domestic programming commands a tiny share of viewing, even on
the big national networks. Less than 20 per cent of ITV’s programming is
acquired from abroad - usually the US and Australia. A spokesperson for
the network comments: ’In 1998, of a total of around 5,000 network hours
of programming, under 1,000 is acquired. That covers all feature films,
all acquired drama - things like Baywatch and Home and Away - and all
the cartoon programming we buy in.’
Furthermore, acquired programmes only account for a fraction of total
ratings across the Continent. Programming from Rupert Murdoch’s Fox
stable - The X-Files or The Simpsons, for instance - does crop up, but
look at the viewing figures for the top French networks and the only
international programming in the ratings is bizarre stuff like Wycliffe.
Germany, Italy and Spain are the same. They have a perverse desire to
watch the sort of programmes that Clive James laughs at; we meanwhile
have a perverse desire to watch quirky local acts like Clive James.
There is another difficult question for the international players to
face. Where is the ad revenue going to come from? For years they’ve been
selling a one-stop shop and have been moaning that not enough clients
have been centralised enough to make that single pan-Euro airtime
The irony is that, at a time when advertisers are putting centralised
structures in place, the broadcasters are suddenly focusing efforts at a
The key here is flexibility. Chris Dobson, regional sales director at
MTV Europe, reveals that the network takes 50 per cent of its revenue
from local budgets. And client centralisation is not as alluring as it
once seemed. He comments: ’Pan-European advertising budgets are all
about a relatively small number of clients - if one changes direction, a
large percentage of the market goes. We are now a hybrid. We have a
complete menu of different ways to buy MTV.’
Mick Buckley, senior vice-president of entertainment advertising sales
at Turner Entertainment, agrees that the proposition is becoming more
sophisticated: ’We work with a number of international clients from a
channel brand perspective. It’s not just about 30-second ads, it’s also
about tapping into other things like the broader relationship we have
with consumers and integrated media opportunities within Time
These include packages bringing together things like sponsorship, plus
in-store and on-pack promotions tied to cartoon character licensing
deals. But he’s in a rare position. Not everyone can offer Scooby Doo
and The Mask.
But some international media buyers say that broadcasters should be
careful in considering new strategies. Eamonn Store, international
account director at Carat International, says: ’The danger in
concentrating on a localised route is that they stand to lose one of the
most important commodities they have - their global brand name. They
should also take care not to reward local advertisers at the expense of
the centre. And there’s a danger of going too fast too quickly,
especially with digital. Digital viewers are lost viewers because they
will not be picked up on audience measurement systems.’
The ratings issue remains the biggest problem faced by broadcasters.
Even if MTV could quadruple its UK audience, it would still only average
one ratings point. Dobson argues that 1 per cent of 16- to 34-year-olds
across Europe means a total of 8.5 million. But that’s still small,
especially when you consider its increasing overheads.
Iain Jacob, executive international director of Motive Communications,
comments: ’If MTV has achieved a 50:50 balance between local and
pan-regional revenue, that’s a massive shift - it’s come a long way in a
year. If pan-European, centralised revenues go down, it can fill their
advertising windows with local advertising. The only problem is that it
is very expensive. Suddenly you need four or five sales teams.’
Can they pay their way? Jacob argues that we’re about to see who the
genuinely committed big international players are. The future will all
be about large advertisers having the right sorts of conversations with
the right media owners - and that is likely to involve some form of
global perspective and notions of strategic partnership. Within that
context, the fine-print of how airtime deals are structured - locally or
internationally - is relatively unimportant.
But broadcasters still face the long-term problem of how best to extract
value from their programme resources and their channel brands. At this
level, structure is vitally important.
And if we want to know what the future will be like, we should perhaps
look to Fox Kids. The first big broadcasting brand to implement the old
cliche about thinking global and acting local. Despite being a
relatively late entrant to the business, it appears to have stolen a
march on its rivals.
A two-year-old venture between News Corp and Saban, it began
constructing a network on a market-by-market basis. Some aspects are run
from the centre - style, attitude, ’brand personality’ - but each
national operation compiles its own schedules from Saban’s library, the
world’s largest storehouse of children’s programming, and produces its
own continuity strands. Most European markets now have a Fox Kids
Rick Plata, the network’s director of advertising sales Europe, concedes
that the network’s structure makes it slightly more complicated to do,
say, a one-stop sponsorship deal across the whole network - but it is by
no means impossible. And of course, Plata can mix and match airtime
deals across several territories.
Having a national focus, both in terms of onscreen style and marketing
back-up, maximises the potential for audience growth without
compromising the network’s international brand equity. So perhaps
international network TV isn’t dead. It’s just starting to look very
different. ’The future of pan-European television is simple,’ Plata
states bullishly. ’It’s Fox Kids.’
Fox Kids - Joint venture between News Corp and Saban, its style and
attitude are defined centrally but individual national operators control
scheduling and record their own continuity programming - a mix which has
MTV - So much for music being a universal language. Where once MTV was
the archetypal pan-European broadcaster, today it operates a whole set
of channels serving separate European sub-regions - a strategy which
Eurosport is looking to replicate.