Given the popularity of travel and adventure programming, one would think the market would belong to the producer. But with basement budgets and global players joining the fray, not to mention a whole new audience with different tastes, broadcasters still call the shots.
Like natural history programming, the travel and adventure genre is currently enjoying unprecedented popularity. The demand has been sparked by a flurry of new international digital and cable channels – such as Italy’s Marco Polo travel and adventure channel – which are looking for bulk programming to fill their slots. There is a catch, of course: the niche broadcasters generally don’t have much money, which means what should be a producer’s market still belongs to the broadcaster. This dilemma for the small producer is likely to be underscored by DCI’s recent arrival into the travel and adventure world with the purchase of U.S. cable service The Travel Channel and Travel Channel Latin America.
While the budget for most travel films is around US$20,000, the typical budget for a Discovery production ranges between $200,000 and $500,000. The entry of a global player of Discovery’s magnitude will undoubtedly shake the market, accentuating the challenges of navigating traditional distribution divisions: broadcasting and home video. Likely, those producers who have an established working relationship with Discovery will benefit from the new deal, as the company tends to partner with familiar entities.
‘Travel is a hard sell,’ explains Doug Jones, president of Los Angeles-based International Travel Films. Jones has been in the business since 1968.
‘There is a perception in travel that people are looking for travel planning. That’s a fallacy. The audience is more likely made up of people who aren’t traveling, either from age or economics. They’re viewing travel programming as a substitute for travel.’
Up until recently, the demographic for travel viewers has been in the 50-plus range, and that doesn’t sit well with advertisers. The older audience used to be the one with disposable income, but that has changed.
‘Advertisers are targeting a younger crowd,’ says Jean Horton Garner, senior vp of Thomas Horton Associates, a producer/distributor out of Santa Barbara. ‘The standard documentary style was the norm; it has now branched off into magazine format with an on-camera host. MTV made a lot of difference in the way people looked at how they can present and edit material.’
That slick, fast-cut mtv approach makes today’s travel and adventure more appealing to a younger audience, but it’s a financial and logistic burden for the producer. tha recently inked a deal which will see London-based HIT Entertainment distribute their Outer Bounds strand. The 39 x 30 minutes will be completed this month, with each program featuring three short segments.
A young audience won’t sit still for several hours in Russia with Peter Ustinov – producers know they want action. However, compiling almost 120 segments full of graphics and adventure is a tall order when the average budget for a television travel show only ranges between $20,000 and $50,000.
Garner has learned much about the fiscal responsibility this type of programming demands. ‘Our crews are normally no more than three people. People have to wear several hats. There’s no room for egos or prima donnas. You have to jump in. You’re a grip and a gaffer, and running sound.’
Whatever legerdemain it might take to get productions to market, they still face a greater challenge once they get there. The bottom line is that there’s a glut of inexpensive travel and adventure for sale, and many producers have extensive libraries which can be fashioned into new travel shows. With new services popping up, it’s reasonable to assume it should be a seller’s market, but the opposite is true.
‘A lot of the recognizable names in cable are expecting to buy programming for $2,000-$3,000 an episode,’ says Jones. ‘That’s not enough to fund it.’ Peter Tomlinson, sales director of Monaco-based Daro Film Distribution, even suggests that a travel program sold into the French cable market might only fetch $500 in some cases.
The only way producers can afford to stay afloat is by holding on to their rights and selling into as many outlets as possible.
‘It’s a multiple media market place in each of the territories now,’ explains Larry Adler, president of Virginia’s Adler Media.
‘You can start at the top and work your way down, and eventually get it on digital. Digital is buying huge quantities of product now. We have been doing 50-100 hours at a time with some of these folks.’
Usually, however, going to foreign markets means giving up substantial rights which will allow the production to be adapted, or even mined for footage to be used in new shows for the international client.
Adler has been selling to Discovery since they were a four-man operation, so he has the reputation, the knowledge and the library to survive the harsh broadcast market. Other producers find the home-video world more accommodating.
HOME VIDEO: Non-fiction Looks For Shelf Space
The home-video market, although it too has been altered by the introduction of new players, is a much more hospitable place for travel producers, even with all its particularities.
International Travel Films was built largely on video. Until recently, they did little work for broadcasters, but ones has come to understand both markets well.
‘The travel market for home video and for broadcast are vastly different,’ he says. ‘In home video, the sad fact is that the quality of the programming is least important. The most important thing is the concept, the title and the box-art, because that’s what the customer has to buy. The opposite is true of broadcast.’
itf’s Great Canadian Train Ride has sold over a million copies in the u.s. alone. According to Jones, what this means is that producers have to be more savvy. An extra $5,000 left over at the end of production might be better spent on a graphic artist for box art than it would be for another aerial. That’s often a surprising concept for producers who are used to broadcast.
Jones’ advice to other producers navigating the international home-video market is to take sales where they can find them, even small returns from obscure markets. Jones sees nothing wrong with selling one of his 14-part series to an Indonesian broadcaster for a few thousand, because otherwise he wouldn’t get into that market at all. In home video, giving up full rights to a series in a territory is acceptable as long as you’re not expecting to capitalize on those titles at a later date. The deals might be small, but they add up quickly if a producer has any kind of library.
The entry of global distributors into the home-video market has skewed things slightly. Since Disney discovered serious money could be made in video sell-through, other conglomerates have started getting in on the act. The travel-video producer’s competition has become companies like National Geographic and now Discovery. One producer points out that it’s hard to sell your travel video when it’s sitting beside a sale rack full of Independence Day. Most travel-video companies will have to turn more to direct marketing.
BOTTOM LINE: Content
There does seem to be a common formula for success in the genre, one which is shared by most players. The most important part of the equation is compelling content.
‘Content will always triumph,’ says Jones. ‘If the content is good, and the program is interesting, it will survive the budgetary restrictions, even though they are higher now than they ever have been.’
It comes down to being able to take the viewer somewhere and allow them to see something they haven’t seen before, say producers. The catchphrase for it is ‘experiential’ programming. Viewers seek an experience and the opportunity to fantasize, not a geography lesson.
Clark Bunting, senior vp of Discovery, agrees. ‘From my viewpoint, when it comes to production, the story wins. It’s not necessarily tied to gross revenues. It comes down to who can put the best value on the screen and what that’s going to look like. That means using television as an enabling technology, as opposed to a transactional technology.’
Having learned hard lessons on the floor at international markets like mip, producers of travel and adventure can rhyme off lists of common, but avoidable, mistakes. First and foremost, if the project has to be adapted for another market, it is going to command lower prices. A show with no talking heads or hosts will be picked up faster, especially if it has a good script. The rules change for productions with star power, like Full Circle With Michael Palin. Projects using an on-camera narrator without such star clout usually suffer as a result of the added cost of translation or reversioning.
Even productions within the same language sometimes face difficulties. Europeans don’t like American accents, and Americans have finite patience for British narrators. (Also, the United States is one of the few countries in the world not to use the metric system.) The key is being able to package the property so a broadcaster has to invest as little time and money as possible.
Money will always be an albatross for producers. Jones offers this piece of advice to would-be travel and adventure filmmakers: ‘To succeed in travel today, you have to get a little bit of money from a lot of different places. You have to get it out of the home video market. You have to get it out of international home-video licensing. You have to get it out of the tiny foreign markets – out of cable operations all over the world, and as much domestically as you can.
‘As I look back over the 30 years I’ve been in the business, all of us have always said that we went into this because we loved the work, not because we wanted to get rich.’