TVE aims to make a difference rather than a profit

While the international production and distribution business moves inexorably towards more commercial program formats, there is one independent company where profit is still viewed as less important than making a difference....
October 1, 1998

While the international production and distribution business moves inexorably towards more commercial program formats, there is one independent company where profit is still viewed as less important than making a difference.

Television Trust for the Environment (TVE) was set up in 1984 by Robert Lamb who, at that time, was working for the United Nations Environment Program. Today, it boasts a library of 700 hours of television covering a range of environmental, human rights and developmental topics. Uniquely, it has won a wide range of international awards while staying true to its core remit as a not-for-profit producer and distributor.

‘In the mid-1980s, there was a lot of programming about wildlife but very little about issues such as the ozone layer, acid rain and global warming,’ Lamb recalls. ‘I was interested in finding ways to turn television companies on to these subjects without them feeling that they had compromised their editorial independence.’

Lamb persuaded the UN, the Worldwide Fund for Nature and Central Television in the U.K. to support his ambition by funding the launch of TVE. The aim was to provide an independent broker who could take ideas and funding from the UN, non-governmental organizations and high profile charities and couple them with the production know-how of leading broadcasters such as the U.K.’s BBC and Channel 4, Boston’s WGBH and Germany’s ZDF.

It was an approach which required a high degree of sensitivity. ‘Commissioners were always interested if we could come to them with an idea and 40% of the budget,’ says Lamb. ‘But we needed to be working with organizations that were sophisticated enough to know how broadcasters would operate editorially.’

In the early days, TVE made blue chip films for high profile strands such as Channel 4′s Fragile Earth. However, Lamb soon became conscious that ‘we weren’t getting to the 70% of humanity who couldn’t afford to buy our shows.’

As a result, TVE started to clear the rights so that ‘poor countries could see good new programs instead of stuff that had been recycled from 20 years before,’ says Lamb.

This emphasis on distributing to poor countries remains a key element of TVE’s activities and is co-ordinated by 55 international outposts known as Video Resource Centers (VRCs). Typically, these are formed in partnership with locally-based organizations which share TVE’s goals. A typical scenario might see the VRC based at a World Wildlife Federation office in Africa and managed by locals. It is a far cry from the hoop-la of MIPCOM.

According to Lamb, ‘We provide programs to the VRCs and they sell them to local stations at a minimal cost.’ The money made goes into TVE’s administration costs or – in the case of a surplus – locally-run training or production projects.

Lamb is fundamentally committed to this principle of paying something for programs. ‘We don’t give programs away because we want to provide stations with an incentive to actually broadcast the material,’ he says. However, securing even a small amount of money is made difficult by the fact that some organizations – such as the World Bank – distribute programs free or, in certain cases, pay the broadcaster for screening them. This form of ‘vanity production’ is not a route Lamb is willing to follow. ‘We distribute high quality programs. I would rather give up than not get paid for them. Fortunately, some of the free programs are so awful that no one will show them.’

While TVE has an enviable reputation for making and distributing quality documentaries, Lamb admits life has gotten tougher for a variety of reasons. Firstly, there has been a ‘lurch towards PR,’ he says. ‘Many international agencies we have worked with have less money and are looking for ways to ensure they can raise the profile of their activities. We can’t guarantee mentions for them in a film – or even a favorable story. Sometimes, inevitably, we bite the hand that feeds us.’

Secondly, there is a sense that ‘we have done our job,’ says Lamb. ‘Many people are familiar with environmental issues such as global warming which were almost unimaginable in those early days. Now it is almost a cliché.’ This familiarity has had an impact on broadcasters who are now less willing to schedule blue chip environmental films in key slots. If they do, the subject matter tends to be ‘iconoclastic like Channel 4′s Against Nature,’ says Lamb. ‘It is more interested in revealing the cant and hypocrisy within elements of the green movement.’

The third overt factor affecting TVE is the increasingly competitive broadcast environment. TVE, like everyone else, has been forced to adapt in order to protect its position in the market.

The clearest change has been in the type of production going through TVE. ‘We made our name with award-winning coproductions which cost in excess of £300,000,’ says Lamb, citing the award-winning series The Last Show on Earth, which has been distributed to 100 countries worldwide. ‘But now, we haven’t got a single one of those productions going through TVE. Sometimes I wonder how we ever managed to raise that money.’

Instead, the company is placing increased emphasis on creating higher volume, lower cost programs for the multichannel environment. ‘We constantly debate whether we should make lots of £12,000-£20,000 films or keep our powder dry for the big one,’ says Lamb.

As part of the new strategic drive, TVE appointed Deidre Simms as head of business affairs two years ago. Simms, whose own background is in commercial program distribution, has been seeking ways to help TVE generate more overtly commercial revenues which can be ploughed back into its activities. Part of her role has been to look at ways of maximizing the potential of the existing catalog. However, she admits this has been made difficult by the nature of the portfolio. ‘We have a lot of one-off films of different lengths which are hard to sell internationally,’ she says.

TVE is also looking at ways of improving its library service so that it is more user-friendly. Numerous European television stations have utilized stock footage from TVE, though there is still some way to go before the archive is capable of matching the commercial sector’s ability to offer up the exact footage requested at the click of a button.

At the same time, however, TVE has made significant strides into long-form programs – most notably with the launch at mipcom of a weekly environmental series called Earth Reports which is broadcast on the BBC’s international satcaster BBC World. The series, which runs to 52 x 30-minutes, combines a broad range of documentary and magazine programming covering international environmental concerns.

Simms managed to attract deficit funding for Earth Reports from independent distributor Primetime – the first time TVE had ever managed to secure an advance from a commercial distributor. ‘In the past, they have always waited until after the programs are complete,’ says Lamb. There are now high hopes of going into production with a new batch of shows.

The significance of the deal is not just in securing distribution for the series, says Simms, it is also important because ‘we want to create a new revenue stream from sales to help fund our other less commercial projects.’

These efforts to tap the commercial market have led to other developments. Firstly, there is a daily soap about London Zoo called Zoo Stories which has been made for Discovery’s Animal Planet. There’s also a ground-breaking animation project called Digit and Download which has been developed with backing from UNICEF. The project, which is intended for a commercial market, will get an airing at the Cartoon Forum later this year. It is the first time UNICEF has endorsed an animation production.

Simms is keen to extend TVE’s activities into the children’s market. ‘We make a lot of programs about children but not many for them,’ she says. Another initiative which Simms has begun to investigate is the possibility of collaborating with commercial distributors in order to gain access to their non-commercial rights. ‘It is only an idea at this stage, but I am sure there are territories where the commercial distributors make no money. We would be interested in distributing their programs to those countries.’

Despite the difficulty of securing slots for environmental programs, Lamb is convinced there is still a place for programs which push for change. ‘We can’t claim to have saved the Mediterranean,’ says Lamb. ‘But there have been minor triumphs, like the return of the whales, which I think we played a part in. I think people are still concerned that governments are not doing enough about the environment – and we help get ideas into their heads.’

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