The L.A. Screenings’ Fascinating History Helped, Challenged MIP
By Dom Serafini
Even though it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the L.A. Screenings started, some retired TV executives designate 1963 as the year in which Canadian broadcasters began making the trip to Los Angeles, not in May, but in …February.
In 1964, when Jack Singer, then at ABC International, and Michael J. Solomon of MCA got the Latins involved, the event did not have a name. Later, it was referred to as the “Screenings,” which became the “May Screenings” when in 1978 it was moved to the month of May. In 1983, VideoAge began calling the event the L.A. Screenings, a name that thereafter became accepted worldwide.
The British arrived in L.A. with the BBC and ITV in 1967, followed by the Australians as the third and fourth groups to join the “Screenings,” while Japan was the fifth country, with the earliest record of their participation in 1972.
Coincidentally, and unbeknownst to each other, MIP-TV was also born in 1963 in France, a market that would always be entwined with the Screenings.
Canadians decided to screen the U.S. TV networks’ new fare after privately owned CTV came into the picture in 1961. Up until then, public network CBC was the only game in town and, usually, distributors like David McLaughlin went to them and not the other way around. In 1960, McLaughlin was recruited from All Canada Radio & Television to head Warner Bros. TV Distribution’s Toronto office in anticipation of a local syndication business.
In addition to its network executives, CTV went to L.A. with its affiliate stations, and a total of about 10 people were housed at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Both CBC and CTV stayed in L.A. for up to 10 days. Norman Horowitz, at that time with Screen Gem (Columbia), recalled that among the Canadians there was also a buyer from CHCH, an independent TV station serving Toronto from Hamilton, which had previously served as a CBC affiliate.
Philip (Pip) Wedge, at CTV in 1965, remembered that ITO was also competing for programming with CTV. ITO was an association formed by CTV affiliates to buy additional programming outside the network from the Americans, starting in 1962. The network lamented this situation and ITO was asked to refrain from bidding for new shows. Currently, Wedge is president of the Toronto-based Canadian Communications Foundation, and he’s researching the early days of the L.A. Screenings.
According to David McLaughlin, Canadians screened new pilots from all of the studios and some independent producers. “They went wherever there was a new show to be screened. That’s why they stayed for so many days,” he said.
However, Horowitz recalled, “My boss would not allow me to screen until the networks had said yes or no. What mattered at that moment were the Canadians only. Nobody at the studios cared about international television early on. Nobody at the studios cared about the Upfronts. It was an individual studio-by-studio decision regarding when to screen.”
The Screenings were a byproduct of another development in the U.S. TV industry. In 1962, ABC — then the weakest network — came up with the idea of premiering all of its programs in a single week following the Labor Day holiday (the first Monday in September). CBS and NBC followed suit and by the mid ’60s, the new TV season was a major national event, marking the end of summer. The fall debut of new season programs helped to create the Upfronts in New York City by requiring advertiser commitments by the spring. Therefore the pilots had to be produced in L.A. by February.
Recalled Jim Rosenfield, “When I joined CBS in 1965, CBS’s Upfront was Washington’s birthday [holiday] on February 22, and that continued for  years, before moving to May with much more elaborate presentations plus parties.”
As was previously mentioned, the Latins entered the Screenings in 1964 when Michael J. Solomon — who had just joined MCA (now NBCUniversal) from the Lima, Peru, office of United Artists — approached Jack Singer in New York City. Singer was responsible for programming the many TV stations that ABC owned overseas and reported to Don Coyle, president of ABC International.
Solomon asked Singer if he could invite to the MCA studios in Los Angeles the managers of the 10 or so TV stations that ABC owned in Latin America to screen and buy on the spot the new shows that MCA was producing mainly for ABC, but also for other U.S. TV networks.
Solomon recalled, “About 20 TV executives from Latin America went to Los Angeles just to screen MCA product. They paid their own way and stayed in L.A. for just three days. Only a year or so later, the other studios began inviting the Latins to screen their new product as well.”
In 1964, Pedro Simoncini was running one of ABC’s TV stations, channel 11 in Buenos Aires, Argentina (that in 1989 became Telefe’s flagship station), and was part of the first LATAM contingent in L.A. Of the early Screenings he remembered that they visited only MCA and that, starting in 1967, he reviewed the new U.S. season at MIP-TV in April, instead of at the Screenings in L.A.
The fact that the L.A. Screenings began in February was documented in a 1977 article by Television/RadioAge, which reported that, “up until the late ’60s, U.S. advertising agencies viewed all the networks’ pilots in late February.” This was confirmed by Solomon: “We had [the Latins] visiting originally in February and it became May later on as the nets decided on their schedule at that time.”
This was corroborated by Herb Lazarus, who at that time was at 20th Century Fox: “The networks originally screened the pilots in February and the schedule was put together soon after. In the ’70s it changed and the networks didn’t put their schedule together until May.”
Marcel Vinay, whose first Screenings was in 1976 while working with Mexico’s Protele-Televisa, remembers, “The change was not that important to [Latin] buyers due to the fact that the new [U.S.] season always started in September.”
The reason the networks moved the Upfronts from February to May was due to December 1978 AFTRA and SAG union strikes that delayed the new season.
However, prior to 1978 the Screenings moved around the months of February, March (1968, 1970, 1971), March-April (1972, 1973) and April (1974). Recalled Solomon, “The screening dates were set when we were told the pilots would be ready to screen.”
As for the sequence of arrivals, Horowitz remembers that Britain’s BBC and ITV buyers were the first Europeans to screen in L.A. and, “as a rule they wanted to screen more than just the pilots and meet with the producers.”
As ITV buyer Leslie Halliwell posted online at www.lesliehalliwell.com, his first trip to Hollywood was in 1967 (before that he went to New York City to screen new U.S. network product). Horowitz recalled that the Australians followed the British. Similarly, Pip Wedge said that in 1975 “the Australians were there but after [the Canadians].”
The Screenings remained in May for over 10 years, and it was during that period that international TV executives and buyers alike began to refer to them as the “May Screenings” (before 1978 there was no name attached). Then, as VideoAge’s 1991 issue attests, the Screenings moved to late May, lasting until June 27.
By then, the Screenings had developed into a well oiled machine and possibly the world’s only organic market created and developed on its own — like Paul Dirac’s antimatter — and graciously evolved in accordance with the changing environment and without any input or guidance.
At one point, it lasted four weeks, with the Canadians and Europeans the first groups to go (as early as May 28 in 1991), followed by the Latins (May 31), the Pan-Pacific territories (June 3) and South Africa ending on June 27. Vinay recalled: “[For us] it lasted two weeks as only one studio presented its shows each day and only from Monday to Friday (no Saturday or Sunday was involved).”
Similarly, according to Pip Wedge, from 1975 to 1981 the Canadians stayed for two weeks and always in the month of April. After that they were closer to one week in the month of May.
The changing length of the Screenings throughout the years was buyer-driven up until 2000 when the studios began instructing their regional offices to book their clients’ screenings within a 10-day period, giving them two or three openings. Recalled Alan Silverbach, then head of domestic and international TV distribution at 20th Century Fox since 1961, “[the buyers] just showed up. Only later, when the number increased, we started to invite them.”
Susan Bender, then at Metromedia, recalled that from 1980 she invited clients to screen at KTTV, followed by a cocktail party on the station’s rooftop terrace and in 1984, Metromedia began having the stars of their shows (Fantasy Island, Charlie’s Angels, etc.) meet with the buyers.
Before today’s fabulous studio extravaganzas, parties were held at executives’ homes like, in 1985, at Paramount’s Mel Harris and, later, at Joe Lucas’s. Another attraction in the mid-1980s, but just for Australian buyers, were the screenings and cocktail at the home of Bea Arthur, star of Buena Vista’s (now Disney Distribution) The Golden Girls. In 1989 house parties became elaborate events for thousands of guests like the ones hosted by Michael J. Solomon, then heading Warner Bros. TV International, and Haim Saban, then owner of Saban Entertainment. Starting in 1993, with increased buyer participation these parties were moved to the studios’ lots and carefully scheduled so as not to conflict with each other.
By 1983, in addition to the six studios, on the buyers’ schedules were other indie companies such as D.L. Taffner, ITC, Viacom and Embassy. In 1990 the indies at the L.A. Screenings numbered 34 with such distributors as New World (screening at the Westwood Marquis Hotel — now The W), Ledafilms (at the Marriott Hotel), Westinghouse (at the Century Plaza) and Worldvision (screening at the Warner-Hollywood Studios), all serving some 200 buyers, including “100 broadcasters from 16 Latin countries.” Four years later, VideoAge registered “450 program buyers from 55 countries and 80 distribution companies.” Last year there were some 1,500 buyers, while the number of sellers was still 80 (including the studios).
In 1983 VideoAge wrote, “The Los Angeles Screenings in early May are increasingly popular.” At that time, MIP-TV was held April 22-28.
Interestingly, the ups and downs of MIP-TV have been closely linked to the L.A. Screenings. When the U.S. TV networks announced their schedule in late February in the ’60s and ’70s, the U.S. studios went to Cannes in April with plenty of new product to sell. Furthermore, MIP-TV increased its importance to the studios in the ’70s because, as indicated in a TV/RadioAge article, “in February and March 1977 [alone] the U.S. TV networks introduced 10 new series.” MIP continued to be viable when it was held in early April and the L.A. Screenings took most of the month of June.
However, starting in 2001, the Screenings moved back completely to May and that’s when rambling about MIP started to surface again, especially when MIP’s dates began heading toward the middle of April.