Buyer’s Pick: Vikings take a voyage on NOVA

It apparently started with a dream producer Bo Erikson (Bo G Erikson Television and svt) had, to do four or five hours on Vikings and their journeys, and build a replica of a 20-metre-long Viking ship. That dwindled to two hours,...
December 1, 1997

It apparently started with a dream producer Bo Erikson (Bo G Erikson Television and svt) had, to do four or five hours on Vikings and their journeys, and build a replica of a 20-metre-long Viking ship. That dwindled to two hours, and the ship wasn’t built, according to Melanie Wallace, senior producer of coproductions and acquisitions at nova, but his show got made with help from nova, SVT, Lark International, Galafilm and WTVS in Detroit. The story of The Viking Saga (working title), as Wallace tells it, has a complicated trajectory, dealing with the ins and outs of copro deal-making when a large number of partners are involved.

Erikson, executive producer of The Viking Saga hooked up with Bill Nemtin of Lark, a consortium of PBS stations, who then went after international financing. Paula Apsell, nova executive producer and director of the wgbh Science Unit, had been interested in Vikings. ‘We know the public can’t get enough of the Vikings,’ explains Wallace. ‘It’s a ratings winner, and it’s just so fascinating to people that, a thousand years ago, there were these seafarers who made it all over the world – they made it to Constantinople. They have this image of being violent and wild and fierce, and yet they wrote beautiful sagas, beautiful poetry, and made beautiful jewelry.’

So when Nemtin approached them, they said yes. ‘Between the Swedish money, the pbs money and the nova money, that was almost enough,’ says Wallace. Lark sought and received financing from Itel, an international distributor which does deficit financing. In order to make the US$1 million budget, Nemtin got Canada involved. He contacted Arnie Gelbart, president of Montreal-based Galafilm, and Canal Vie and Discovery Canada came on board as broadcasters. The Canada-Sweden trade agreement meant access to federal funds, so a Canadian director was contracted for the Newfoundland and Greenland shoots, with the music done in Canada as well.

With funding in place, the number of partners dictated a slow decision-making process, so director Mikael Agaton (of Agaton Film and Television, whose Lars Rengfelt is credited as producer of The Viking Saga), started shooting anyway. This entailed SVT footing the bill while the contract was hammered out, the amount of time, notes Wallace, was probably ‘excruciating.’

The contract is in the final stages (‘very, very near completion’), with the rough-cut just viewed in Sweden, and the target American broadcast date spring or winter 1999. The project could take the form of either 2 x 1 hours or 1 x 2, as the two segments are complete within themselves: one focusing on Viking journeys west, and the other, east. On NOVA, The Viking Saga will likely be broadcast as a one-off special outside of NOVA’s Tuesday 8-9 p.m. slot.

The subject matter covered by nova runs to science, nature, technology, medicine, archaeology, anthropology, with a particular interest in science adventure and expedition films. Mixed in with ‘some of the best repeats from previous years,’ about ten of the 20 new shows each season are original programs, fully funded and produced by NOVA, with the rest consisting of coproductions and acquisitions (they receive over 500 proposals a year).

NOVA’s early involvement with The Viking Saga reflects the shift in the buying landscape over the past decade; buyers are rooting out projects at the conceptual stage, with co-financing guaranteeing access at an affordable rate. ‘Years ago, you could go to a market, you could look at a film and go, ‘Oh, I like that,’ and then just buy it,’ says Wallace. ‘That probably was true up until about eight years ago. Now there are so many competing outlets for similar kinds of material that those good programs aren’t on the shelf anymore – they’ve already been bought, committed to. We found that if we want to make sure we continue to get this kind of product then we have to get involved earlier on.

‘For a long time, nova was the only game in town, but that’s not true anymore, which is not a bad thing. It’s just a recognition that the market has changed, and I think the appetite for science programming has grown and that’s then true for our own ratings.’

As well, Wallace points to the fact that not many producers are making the type of program which NOVA shows, namely ‘a strong narrative story that hangs on science.’ Despite the positive impact on actual viewership numbers, Wallace notes how ‘Now people are saying, ‘Well, why don’t you make two [programs] for the same amount of money?’ And there are some people who are willing to do that, who can do that. And it doesn’t mean what they’re making isn’t worthwhile – it’s just different.

‘NOVA is trying really hard to still make our films using film. You can see a lot of programs on video in a lot of places, and, in fact, some programs, you need to make on video: if you’re shooting for a long time, following a process. But we still want our programs to be filmed, we want our programs to be beautiful, have a really long shelf-life, and to be the definitive work on a particular topic, to have a life in schools, to have congress want to look at it and use it. Our programs are not meant to be watched once and never seen again.’

And NOVA pays the price, literally, at US$500,000 for an hour at the high end, vaying, of course, with the rights. PBS has a mandatory base of eight plays in six years, according to Wallace, which WGBH must adhere to as the station buys for PBS, and that includes first window rights in North America. ‘Although, in the case of Plague Fighters [Associated Producers], because it was Canadian producers, we gave the CBC first window,’ amends Wallace. ‘We don’t care about international first window. Only Canada because there are a lot of border stations.’

Ultimately, Wallace stresses the accuracy of NOVA’s films. ‘We pay a lot of attention to research and fact-checking,’ she says. ‘We see ourselves really as a science journalism strand, and I think that distinguishes us from some of these other series that are more ‘science as entertainment’. We want our programs to be entertaining, but that’s not the goal. It’s important, but it’s not enough.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.