Marlin Perkins, step aside. Natural history docs have come a long way since Mr. Perkins and his faithful sidekick, Jim, entertained audiences with dramatic footage of lions and wildebeests. Natural history catalogues are commanding lucrative contracts because of their long shelf life and ability to grab any age group.
Enter TV New Zealand’s Natural History Unit. tvnz has a backlist of over 150 hours of wildlife films, and over 40 projects currently in production. When Michael Stedman, the unit’s managing director, first proposed to sell a majority (80%) share over one-and-a-half years ago, he was surprised by the range and depth of the offers.
tvnz’s extensive inventory is considered to be on the first rung of ‘B’ catalogues. The product is not of the calibre of documentaries commissioned under the National Geographic umbrella, but insiders flippantly refer to it as a ‘decent back catalogue.’ The experienced 60-person production unit attached to tvnz is also considered an asset.
Nobody will venture an off-the-record guesstimate of its worth, but Stedman says he was surprised at the ‘level of interest’ and the ‘very pleasing’ offers. After being forced to find major coproduction partners to subsidize his budgets, Stedman decided it was time for the unit to find a stable partner: ‘The world was breaking up into strategic alliances – National Geographic and nbc, and Discovery and BBC. Being upside down at the bottom of the world, we had to tie ourselves to another international partner in order to secure a market.’
Over ten offers were formally registered with TVNZ, but only three companies are in final negotiations, according to Stedman. It was widely speculated that Discovery Channel would be the big stakes winner – an equity position would have secured a long-term supply of programming. At mipcom, DCI ceo John Hendricks said that discussions were ‘still in progress,’ but company spokesman Jim Boyle has squelched rumors. After ‘due diligence,’ the company decided it was ‘too hard to have a majority stake with something on the other side of the world,’ says Boyle.
Broadcaster Fox Entertainment is also rumored to have bowed out, as well as United News Media, parent company of itel, one of the largest distributors of natural history programming, and Australia’s Beyond Distribution.
HIT Entertainment, the U.K. distributor which holds TVNZ’s rights until 1999, will not verify whether or not it has made a formal offer. However, insiders believe the company was only interested in extending its distribution rights – which it has held since 1993 – not acquiring controlling shares in the company. hit anxiously awaits the final announcement which is expected in early November. Charles Caminada, hit sales director, calls it ‘one of the most valuable in the world.’
According to industry sources, that leaves National Geographic, Australia’s Southern Star Sales and perhaps u.k.’s Pearson Television International – considered a long shot – sprinting towards the finish line. National Geographic declined to comment, as did Pearson. The rumour mill will continue to churn until final negotiations are made public.
Also in Upfront:
-News Briefs for November 1997
-Disney goes back to nature
-Paramount boosts its reality slate with Wild Things
-Discovery’s Latin American Travel Buy
-New Canadian Cable Apps