Report for MIP-TV – Factual Frontrunners: All the hot spots, all the hotshots

There is a long-standing myth that paints documentary filmmakers as eccentric loners who doggedly show their labors of love to empty movie houses. While they might be a little on the odd side, doc producers are enjoying unprecedented levels of exposure,...
April 1, 1998

There is a long-standing myth that paints documentary filmmakers as eccentric loners who doggedly show their labors of love to empty movie houses. While they might be a little on the odd side, doc producers are enjoying unprecedented levels of exposure, pulling in television viewers by the millions internationally.

To take the temperature of the world market, RealScreen polled 30 producers and distributors, asking them about the global hot spots for non-fiction. The first query was to get a fix on what they considered to be the five most important regions for non-fiction production and distribution; the second, to pinpoint the broadcaster (or cablecaster) in those regions pollees felt to be most important to their business. The criteria for broadcaster selection was coproduction involvement, investment, time allocation and general dedication to the genre.

The u.s., u.k. and France were almost unanimously selected as the top three regions, while number four and five were much less defined. Markets in Germany, Asia, Australia and Scandinavia polled well. There was even a single vote for Benelux, proving that opportunities exist in the smallest markets if companies are willing to work hard enough to position themselves there.

The United States was the undisputed leader in the poll, with Discovery well ahead of its competitors in the region. National Geographic – which doesn’t even have a u.s. service yet, but is talking to a number of prodcos for its iminent launch – made its presence known as a possible secondary candidate. Gearing up for its domestic debut, the ranking is an indication of the role Nat Geo will play when it does eventually hit the air in America. Some respondents commented that the service will have to come out of the blocks strong to compete with dci. With four outlets in the u.s. alone, dci appears to have resources, shelf space and airtime enough to subsidize much of the world’s non-fiction production.

Channel Four was an equally strong frontrunner in the United Kingdom. The recent appointment of Steve Hewlett as head of factual programmes is the reason most gave for C4′s dominance. Rumors abounded that he is in the process of locking in commitments with several ‘brand name’ producers for certain slots, in an effort to push ratings even higher. Look for C4 to expand its non-fiction programming range and increase its dominance in the u.k. factual market.

Surprisingly, the bbc and itv hardly made a dent in the poll. Many predict Mothercorp’s factual schedule will flounder (both Newsnight and Panorama were censured for decline by respondents), and itv has lately faced some loud (and well-publicized) criticism for what appears to be waning commitment to non-fiction – at least ‘serious’ non-fiction. An optimistic view suggests that itv will become a stronger player in the long run, growing more influential as the bbc declines. Although newcomer Sky has recently made its own mark in the world of u.k. non-fiction, what it will do if teenagers stop drinking in Ibiza (re: Ibiza Uncovered) remains unclear.

In France, Canal+ was a close winner over arte and France 2. The French broadcasting situation seems to be in flux, and polling reflected that. Talk of mergers between France’s public broadcasters is causing a stir, and several newer services (such as Canal J, Planète Cable and Odyssée) are finding favor with producers in terms of innovative programming directions. One distributor summed it up by saying: ‘France is preparing to go in circles again, only this time it could be worse.’

Some distributors questioned whether internal policies might affect Canal+’s commitment to a strong factual slate outside of natural history. La Cinquième was tagged as the French broadcaster to watch by many producers and distributors. Also look for upstarts Planète Cable and Canal J to do their best to push innovative product into the region, possibly at the cost of ratings for the more traditional outlets.

The fourth choice for most important region and broadcaster was far from unanimous, but Germany did make its mark. Natural history seems to be the main import, but as in France, the landscape is changing.

ard was the leader of the small pack of German broadcasters, but was accused of squandering a lot of good opportunities because of its decentralized system and an apparent inability to promote itself, or make rational scheduling decisions. rtl is positioning itself to take a run at zdf, especially in historical docs. vox was a strong contender and seems to be buying as much as ard. As for Discovery Germany, polling indicated it might be time for damage control as the service has not met dci’s expectations. Discovery recently announced a us$300,000 investment in the East German filmmaking community, but what kind of dividends the investment will buy in ratings and audience support has yet to be seen.

The fifth region was even less defined, with at least five different areas selected. Japan and Australia were named with some hesitation, the concern being tendencies toward risk aversion, historic self-isolation and the instability of the economy, especially in Asia. nhk was the clear choice in Japan, as was abc in Australia.

Scandinavia was a consistent choice, but different producers and distributors have flourished in different markets, so consensus as to what was the most important market or broadcaster was difficult. Generally, commercial outlets had the edge over pubcasters.

In Italy, the only broadcaster mentioned was rai. Even with a bureaucracy that makes the bbc look like a church social league, rai was pegged a broadcaster of growing importance in the non-fiction field. Perhaps an indication of that new commitment was its much-lauded presence as a buyer at the Forum in Amsterdam last year.

Many producers and distributors picked Canada as a land of opportunity. Oddly enough, it was a provincial broadcaster which gained the most approval. tvo, broadcasting in Ontario only, clearly dominated the cbc. tvo’s programming and spending philosophy, perceived by distributors and prodcos to focus on art and content over the deal, sets it apart from other services.

Lastly, Korea was also tagged as a region to watch for non-fiction.

Several distributors pointed to competition in Europe as a boon. While a single broadcaster can dictate the tone of the region in the u.s. and other large markets, European rivalries are perceived to translate into better opportunities for sales and a chance at bigger license fees. About this situation, distributor Larry Adler, of Virginia-based Adler Media, commented, ‘Thank God.’

Guide to Frontrunners:

-Intro & Ratings

-All the hot spots, all the hotshots

-Discovery’s all-time top shows

-Channel 4′s current top shows

-TVOntario 1997 top shows

-Canal+ 1997 top show

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.