Judging from the chatter in Cannes, the broadcast and production industries are about to embark on a close re-examination of the relationship between cable and independent producers. Now that nichecasters rival the networks in size and influence – even surpassing them in global presence – they’re corralling talent in a fashion which would have done the old Hollywood studios proud.
Cable television was born of the notion that you can make a profit from a smaller audience if you keep costs down. The original idea was that acquiring or pre-buying programming would cost less at the bottom of the balance sheet than producing it in-house. Fair enough. But then cable got big, and went global, and multi-tentacled services – wholly reliant on maintaining their brand identities – were leaving themselves at the mercy of what’s on the market. And the market was getting more competitive.
So they bought themselves some production companies to ensure supply.
Arguably, that’s just what National Geographic and Discovery did when they put ink to deals with Carlton and the bbc respectively.
Granted, Nat Geo already has its own natural history unit, but even when the company inevitably pulls back its product from other outlets and ramps up production, there are still many unfilled hours, should all the international launches up its sleeve come to fruition. Although Carlton (a large-and-getting-larger production infrastructure moving towards making itself less dependent on itv) looks like an ideal partner on paper, its editorial style to date doesn’t mesh with the ‘signature’, ‘blue-chip’ programming Nat Geo is promising to back up its premium positioning. To get its own win out of what’s being touted as a win/win situation, Nat Geo will be keeping a close eye and a firm hand on the resulting programming.
Discovery’s situation was, perhaps, even more dire, as the company has been racing into launches to secure carriage, possibly before all the programming itself is in place. The resources of the bbc’s much-storied natural history unit will prove ever valuable. However, Discovery’s existing services, when added to the multitude of services still being considered, creates an almost unfathomable programming need, and Nat Geo is not just hot after Discovery’s demographic, but also its suppliers. Considering the big picture, it’s anticlimactic that the bbc deal outlines only us$175 million toward coproduction over five years – maybe 300 hours and probably not more business than Discovery would have done with the bbc anyway. Unless there’s a secret door in the us$275 million not accounted for after Discovery puts up the copro money and bankrolls the bbc’s u.s. launch, look for the cablecaster to charge ahead with more programming deals like the one announced with zdf last month.
Watching the imminent formation of two distinct cable camps, indie producers are asking a lot of questions, and not getting many answers. There are some bigger blue-chip companies out there rubbing their hands with glee – they’ve got the goods that both of the big cablecasters want and need, and they actually are in a position to play one off the other to nab the highest fee. As for the rest of the production pack, it’s wait and see – waiting to see if the cable/indie-producer relationship will indeed be radically altered, or just slightly rearranged.
Mary Ellen Armstrong, Editor