Production – Conspiracy Theories – Potential production fallout from the `big deals’: In light of new and sweeping covenants between the top-end players, it appears the non-fiction

production world is being carved up into two camps. With the dawning of a new world order,...
June 1, 1998

production world is being carved up into two camps. With the dawning of a new world order,

producers are wondering what’s in store for them

Welcome to producer’s camp

The abundance of recent mergers, acquisitions and joint ventures has a lot of factual producers observing that their world is slowly separating into two camps: Discovery and National Geographic. While the well-publicized BBC/DCI joint venture may have eclipsed the smaller, but just as press worthy, NGT/Carlton deal, filmmakers with a worldview see both as indicating the wave of the future.

The transmigration of the factual world is approaching, and it will be accompanied by a flurry of questions. How far will a brand stretch before it splinters into something unrecognizable? What happens to independent producers when there are only two big customers? Is there any truth to rumblings among independent producers that the broadcasters would like to radically narrow down the number of suppliers?

BBC & DCI – Mountains and Molehills

By the time the dust settled and press releases heralding the joint venture stopped jamming fax machines, it had become evident that the world’s orbit had not altered. Producers were no better or worse off than before, and broadcasting hadn’t really changed all that much; dci was launching yet another channel. That in itself wasn’t a revelation – long in the making, the deal didn’t sneak up on anyone. But it did leave a list of unanswered questions.

The deal is unprecedented in many respects: integration of private and public money; two broadcasters with distinct brands. With pressure on to find production dollars, what impact will the venture have on the BBC brand?

It has been suggested that BBC commissioning editors will be tempted to choose Discovery-style programming (for which the cablecaster would then put up half the cash) over BBC-esque proposals (which the public broadcaster would have to fund entirely). According to Paul Lee, general manager of BBC America, U.K. producers that tailor programming to DCI’s style might be unpleasantly surprised, as it is likely the BBC’s `Britishness’ which attracted the American cablecaster in the first place.

‘We have certainly found that [U.S. audiences] expect us to be British. It is a British brand,’ he explains. ‘What’s happening in the cable market recently is that there have been hundreds of launches, and every one of them cuts the American cable and tv market that much thinner.

‘Discovery realized this is a brand as strong as theirs, but that it is entirely different. What’s interesting about the BBC is it has so many different parts to it. It’s a brand that takes far more risks, at an appropriate time, than some networks in the U.S. would ever take. I think it reflects the British character. We’ve been very pleasantly surprised by how well Discovery understands theBBC brand.’

Optimistically speaking, the BBC’s remit is likely to win any tugs of war over content. The accuracy of Lee’s statement, however, will be determined over time, and there are more immediate concerns for producers.

When asked about the timing of the deals, Lee offers a simple explanation: ‘There has been an explosion of technology, which is allowing people to go global and put many more products on the shelf. What does this actually mean? It means there are a whole load of new channels that are desperate for good programs.’

The most interesting aspect of the deal (with due respect to Mothercorp, a behemoth compared to even an operation of Discovery’s size) is that DCI has bought itself access to the production entity it needed. Something has to fill all those hours DCI pumps into the atmosphere, and the BBC’s multi-billion-dollar production factory fit the bill.

The launch of BBC America, a predominantly fiction-based service, is expected to have little impact on production of factual programming worldwide, but many fear dci’s first-look exclusivity on bbc’s slate might. According to Bob Wise, senior VP of Discovery/BBC Ventures, nothing has changed on that front either, and the numbers seem to back him up.

‘I don’t think there will be much of an impact at all,’ he says. ‘The fact of the matter is that we are currently working with over 300 production companies, who are working on projects in various stages of completion. We are spending a very small portion of our programming budget in terms of the guaranteed commitment of funding to BBC projects, so probably well on the order of 90% of our commissioning and coproduction budgets is still going to be available to the independent sector.’

Lee sees the joint venture having a positive impact on the production community in the U.K. ‘I think the nice thing about all this, from our perspective, is it means that what in the U.K. has simply been a domestically sustained production base is going to become a globally sustained production base. That means more money going into programs, and more outlets for everybody’s programs. In my opinion, that says those producers who can produce programs which stand out from the pack are going to be worth five times the amount they used to be.’

The U.K. production community might be the only one to reap any rewards, however. Keenan Smart, head of the natural history unit at NGT, plays devil’s advocate when asked about the DCI/BBC venture’s possible impact on producers. ‘On the surface of it you might think, `Wow, what a great opportunity for independent producers,’ but the fact of the matter is, I think even people at Discovery might be wondering what they’re going to be doing as part of this deal. The BBC’s Natural History Unit alone has 300 people working in it, and has doubled in size in the last few years.’ It is likely only filmmakers already with an in at the BBC will see the fruits of the venture.

Realistically, the deal will render almost no changes to the non-fiction world. Although strategically DCI might want to, it can’t afford to buy all BBC programming to keep it from competitors. DCI has no special entree into the BBC library, so there will be no flood of reversioned BBC fodder headed towards Discovery channels (ˆ la The Making of Benny Hill or When Benny Hill Attacks!).

For the BBC’s part, it will still continue to produce programming in which DCI has no interest, because its mandate thusly commits it. The deal with DCI doesn’t have the strength to alter the BBC’s remit.

National Geographic & Carlton – The Quiet Camp

Like the skulking predators from one of its specials, National Geographic Television seems to be making very quiet and cautious progress towards becoming a significant competitor for DCI. Based on numbers alone, the April NGT/Carlton deal doesn’t seem as earth-shattering as DCI/BBC, but first impressions can be deceiving.

Of the US$565 million DCI committed to the BBC over five years, only US$175 million of that is for programming – which breaks down to US$35 million a year: a figure DCI would have likely met regardless.

The US$20 million NGT will contribute annually over the course of its agreement will go to programming Carlton would not have made otherwise. Carlton will have to at least double the size of its production department and make ties to independent producers in order to fulfill the slate to which it’s now committed.

While a prolific producer in its own right, Carlton is not known for its blue-chip-doc output, and that might leave some wondering about the logic of the partnership. Size is the most obvious explanation; Carlton is the largest terrestrial broadcaster in the U.K., a gateway to some 22 million homes. Add the deal ngt signed with HIT (as well as rumors at MIP, hinting at a possible agreement between NGT and ITEL), and it looks as if the broadcaster is setting itself up not only as a serious contender in the U.K. market, but also a major player in one of the biggest production regions in the world. This could be a critical strategy for a broadcaster that considers itself the underdog.

While the temptation to expand into new territories and put product on the shelves might be great, NGT has the added burden of maintaining a century-old brand. The difference between the Discovery brand and the National Geographic brand is evident in their respective forays to the Galapagos: DCI was there for two months; NGT was there for two years. It remains to be seen which kind of investment is more profitable in the long run.

‘National Geographic, quite rightly, defends its brand remorselessly,’ explains Paul Cleary, Carlton Television head of docs and co-chair of the joint editorial board. ‘It’s a problem which National Geographic identified, and I think it’s a bigger problem for them than any other channel I can think of. When you turn on, you have an expectation – that comes from the magazine; that’s what you expect to see, and that’s what you damn well better see. I mean, it’s fantastic, because once you crack it, then people will know that’s where they really want to go, because they know the level of quality they’re going to get.’

With the National Geographic brand at the forefront, the challenge becomes coming up with new and innovative programming without giving the accountants heart attacks. Cleary says the NGT/Carlton deal was meant to address this. ‘This is a way of getting high-quality programming – the sort of programming that National Geographic has got to show because it’s a high-expectation channel – without them having to be funding crippling amounts of programming as they grow.’

But Carlton also benefits. ‘What [the deal] has allowed us to do is make programming. As channels are becoming more competitive, whole areas are being lost and squeezed into other areas. I think there is a slimming down of the major players. It was a timely thing…. .We both need each other.’

As some programming in the pipe ventures outside the realm of the blue-chip natural history for which ngt is famous, it will be interesting to see what the fruits of the partnership turn out to be. Carlton will also be crossing lines into exploration, adventure and archeology. There are rumors of a series on the Top Gun courses in Nevada, and some lower-budget cultural pieces that come dangerously close to docu-soap territory. The real question to be answered: does the ngt brand depend on content, or stylistic approach?

Nat Geo has always been careful with its brand, but it’s impossible to fill all your slots with half-million-dollar-an-hour docs, ad infinitum. NGT helps keep about 500 scientists working in the field to produce at its current levels. To expand on that without quality suffering requires finding partners with deep pockets.

Setting The Stage

The Deals

The DCI/BBC joint venture is a US$565 million deal spread out over five years: US$175 million is for new programming; US$100 million is dedicated to BBC America; and US$290 million is for future international joint-venture launches.

The recent National Geographic Television deal with Carlton International is for a minimum of 300 hours of programming over the next three years, estimated to be worth about US$60 million. Project commissioning has just begun for roll-outs beginning 1999.

Nat Geo also announced a five-year deal with London’s HIT Entertainment for several hundred hours (about 200 titles) of its wildlife catalogue. The term commences with the NGT launch into Asia, which will take place later this summer. Both parties began working on the deal last September, when NGT launched into the U.K. They literally went through the catalogue title by title, with NGT assuming exclusive rights for everything which remained. While neither party would release a figure, the value of the deal is in the millions.

Industry Conspiracy Theories

DCI is stuck in launch-mode, scrambling for programming after outlets have been committed to. Could be just trying to eat up broadcasting space before NGT can fill it.

Nat Geo stockpiles before launch, and might finally be gearing up for a real run at Latin America, Eastern Europe and – should they be able to wrangle carriage – the U.S.

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