FOX BUYS 50% OF NAT GEO CHANNEL'S WORLDWIDE OPERATIONS: U.S. launch to come, new alliance with Natural History NZ...
June 1, 1999

FOX BUYS 50% OF NAT GEO CHANNEL’S WORLDWIDE OPERATIONS: U.S. launch to come, new alliance with Natural History NZ

They’ve talked about it for ages, but this time it looks like they mean it: the National Geographic Channel is moving into the U.S. The necessary push, it seems, comes in the form of new partner Fox Entertainment Group, which now owns 50% of the channel’s worldwide operations, excluding territories covered by National Geographic U.K. National Geographic Television retains 25%, as does U.S. network broadcaster NBC. (NGT and NBC joined forces in 1996 to form National Geographic Channels Worldwide.)

Though no launch date has been announced, NGT president Tim Kelly says the move into the U.S. is now a certainty, and that expansion into additional countries will follow. NGT currently airs in nearly 40 million homes in 54 countries.

Does the marriage with Fox mean that fare such as When Animals Attack is destined for the Nat Geo U.S. lineup? No chance, Kelly insists. ‘We will be ensuring that everything that goes on the channel is accurate and reflects the integrity that people have come to expect from National Geographic,’ he says. ‘Certainly the shock-docs are not going to be part of the mix.’ According to Kelly, the partners are comfortable allowing Nat Geo to maintain editorial control. ‘National Geographic has its own particular role in looking after the content, look and feel of the channel.’

Fox still has something to offer towards programming though – access to Natural History New Zealand. Late in 1997, Twentieth Century Fox bought controlling interest in the acclaimed production unit. Both Fox and Twentieth Century Fox are owned by parent company News Corp. (News Corp also owns 40% of BSkyB, National Geographic’s partner in the U.K.) ‘We hope to utilize Natural History New Zealand extensively for the channel,’ says Kelly. ‘They are excellent producers of very high-quality programming.’

Kelly estimates that NGT will produce more than 200 hours annually, which he expects will constitute the core of the channel’s programming. Acquisitions and coproductions will make up the difference in the schedule.

Of course the big question still swirling around the NGT U.S. launch is carriage, and spokespeople say it has not yet been worked out. It remains to be seen whether the Fox partnership will prove critical in terms of access, possibly by converting one of its own U.S. cable networks.

In the case of both Fox and NBC, their official primary roles will be to boost international expansion opportunities. ‘NBC last fall contributed in a big way in the conversion of NBC Europe and Asia to the National Geographic Channel. We added 18 million subscribers internationally from the conversion,’ Kelly says.

What’s the word from key competitor Discovery? ‘With respect to the U.S., we think it will be a challenge for them to grow their distribution to a sizeable number. The reality is that the window of opportunity for widely-distributed analog cable service in the u.s. has come and gone,’ says Jim Boyle, Discovery International’s senior VP of marketing and communications. ‘Outside of the U.S., it’s a little more of an open playing field, although we would still argue not necessarily a level one.’

Fox Television chairman and ceo Chase Carey was unavailable for comment at press time. Susan Rayman

BBC WORLDWIDE SALE TO C4 VETOED: Supernatural Science, made for DCI, spotlights internal conflict

BBC policymakers have vetoed plans by the corporation’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, to license a blue-chip science series to rival broadcaster Channel 4 for US$350,000.

Supernatural Science was made by BBC Production as a direct commission for Discovery Communications Inc. (DCI).

At the time of production, it was regarded as too similar in editorial style to the BBC natural history series Supernature to allow it to air on BBC1 or BBC2. However, it has aired in the U.K. on BBC/Flextech cable and satellite channel UK Horizons.

The series in question was partly funded by Worldwide – which is charged with raising commercial revenue to complement the BBC’s license fee. Currently, Worldwide is committed to tripling its income to £200 million by the time the current BBC Royal Charter expires in 2006.

Although Worldwide is regularly called on to make compromises by the pubcaster’s policy and planning team, the Supernatural Science case is a particularly high-profile conflict of interest between the BBC’s public and commercial goals.

Worldwide would not comment on the matter, but it does have important ramifications for future BBC Production commissions direct from DCI. If, in future, Worldwide is asked to deficit such a series, it will not be able to rely on a U.K. sale – making investment less attractive. This could have the effect of nixing productions, or open up the possibility of rival distributors stepping in to fill the breach – presumably without BBC policymakers being able to block subsequent licensing deals. Andy Fry

SOUTHERN STAR REORGANIZES LONDON OPERATION INTO GENRE UNITS: `Wild & Real’ to put special push on Oxford Scientific Films

Australian producer/distributor Southern Star has reorganized its London-based distribution business into three genre-based divisions.

Following the recent acquisition of U.K. distributor Primetime, the two companies’ factual libraries have been merged into a unit called Southern Star Wild & Real.

Former Primetime boss Simon Willock is in charge of Wild & Real, which houses more than 1000 hours of non-fiction programming.

According to Willock, the new set-up reflects the demands of buyers. ‘The likes of Discovery or National Geographic expect distributors to have very specific areas of expertise. It also makes sense for us to be able to manage genres on a global basis.’

Willock says program priorities for the newly-merged unit include science, history, travel & adventure and wildlife. In particular, he expects Wild & Real to make greater efforts to promote the work of Southern Star subsidiary Oxford Scientific Films. ‘osf makes highly-regarded blue-chip natural history – and part of our plans for growth will be to give their activities greater commercial husbandry.’ Andy Fry

SHORT DOCS NOT DEAD YET: Academy being lobbied by Hollywood heavyweights to save Oscar category

The Oscar category for short docs may yet survive to see another year. In the wake of a January decision by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ board of governors to merge the two existing doc categories (for best feature and best short), short doc supporters, including a vocal group within the Academy, have come pouring out of the woodwork.

Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Redford, Martin Scorsese and other Hollywood heavyweights, for example, added their names to an open letter (which appeared in The Hollywood Reporter on April 21 and Daily Variety on April 22), urging the governors to maintain a separate award for shorts.

According to Alec Lorimore, a member of the executive committee of the Academy’s short film and animation branch, his committee and the documentary exec committee have been lobbying the board hard. The group submitted a joint resolution to the board at the April 27 meeting to reinstate the award, and presented each governor with a comprehensive briefing book titled New Information about Documentary Short Films. The motion was tabled, pending an independent study.

‘What the study will determine is, as our side asserts, are these films enjoying bonified theatrical exhibition in the world,’ says Lorimore, who is also VP of production and development at MacGillivray Freeman Films. ‘Film projection in front of paying audiences is the definition of theatrical exhibition, so it’ll be a study on the facts of that question.’ The final vote is scheduled for the June 15 board meeting.

To qualify for Oscar contention, short films must have a minimum seven-day run in either a Los Angeles or Manhattan theater. In Lorimore’s opinion, this unfairly limits the number of eligible shorts. ‘The fact that they’re not showing in New York or L.A. doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not showing.’ (The L.A.-based International Documentary Association has taken to staging an annual event called Doctober, during which docs are screened in an l.a. theater to make them Oscar-eligible.)

Some believe, however, that short docs are going the way of black-and-white film. ‘There’s another group of members on the board who feel that there is no theatrical life to short films,’ explains John Pavlik, the Academy’s director of communications.

Academy executive director Bruce Davis says his concern is ‘we’re not getting a full enough slate of entries each year to have a legitimate separate category.’ In 1998, only three short docs received a high enough score to be nominated, instead of the normal five. ‘We’ve been willing to redefine what a theatrical environment is, certainly to include specialty screenings like imax, and even maybe as far as museum theaters and venues like that. So, what the board is looking at at this point is do we go even further than that.’

One of the arguments by the ‘separate award’ supporters is to allow films that have done the festival circuit to qualify. ‘There’s hundreds of these festivals worldwide, and a lot of these documentaries show at many of them, which is bonified theatrical exhibition,’ Lorimore says.

Walter Shenson, chairman of the Academy’s doc committee adds: ‘I think a lot of them [opponents] think that they [shorts] don’t do well at the box office, and my point of view is this the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, not the Academy of Box Office.’ Susan Rayman

AXEL SPRINGER BUYS MAJORITY INTEREST IN GRB: German publisher moves into the TV arena

L.A.-based producer/distributor GRB Entertainment is kissing deficit-financing goodbye, thanks to the financial clout of new majority stake holder Axel Springer TV International Ltd. In mid-May, the London-based media arm of German publishing giant Axel Springer Verlag AG acquired 51% of GRB for an undisclosed amount.

Gary Benz, who founded GRB in 1987, denies that the independent company had been experiencing financial setbacks prior to the buy out. ‘They actually found us and came to us,’ he says. ‘As an independent production company that’s deficiting shows, we’re always …in financial need. Were we in trouble? No, we’ve grown every year for 12 years.’

Benz insists that GRB would have remained independent if Axel Springer’s offer hadn’t come along, ‘but I looked at the landscape and saw the writing on the wall: We are going to be severely limited in our growth potential unless we pull in a strategic partner that can really take us to a competitive playing field with the other majors that are out there.’

Late last year, GRB lost out on a potential deal with Spelling Entertainment for a reality series called TAC-1, about police and rescue operations. ‘Spelling was considering taking it out in syndication and they paid for the pilot, but since then Spelling has been taken over by Viacom,’ Benz explains, adding that CBS is currently considering the series. GRB has built its reputation on such action and stunt programs as The Ultimate Stuntsman (for ABC), Hollywood’s Greatest Stunts and Movie Magic (both for Discovery).

Stephen Barden, managing director of Axel Springer TV International, says content and programming decisions will rest with Benz. ‘What we’ve bought is, as much as anything else, the management and creativity that is there. I will, obviously, as chief executive of the company that has bought it, be sitting as chairman of the board, but I’m certainly not going to be sitting around telling them what to do.’

The majority stake does mean that Axel Springer has leverage. ‘While on the one hand we do believe in ensuring that the companies we acquire retain their independence, and sell independently, and become profitable companies in their own right,’ says Barden, ‘it’s also important that we’re able to leverage their content and their distribution with all of our other interests.’

According to Barden, Axel Springer’s TV goals include a more serious impact on the U.S. networks and deeper penetration of the international markets, particularly in Germany. Benz confirmed that GRB will be setting up production units in Germany, though he wouldn’t give specific details about the planned shows.

Last year, GRB reported sales of US$12.4 million. Susan Rayman

BSkyB SET-TOP BOX GIVEAWAY: Discovery (and the stock market) welcomes bold digital move

British Sky Broadcasting has once again seized the initiative in the U.K. digital television market by announcing plans to give away set-top boxes to new subscribers.

As of June 1, people wishing to hook up with SkyDigital need only pay a one-off installation fee of about US$60. Prior to that date, consumers were paying about $330 for Sky’s hardware.

The announcement triggers Skys most aggressive marketing drive since its launch last fall. To date, SkyDigital has picked up 550,000 digital subscribers, of which 39% are new to multichannel television. The new move is sure to push the service past the 1 million mark by the end of the year.

BSkyB chief executive Mark Booth, who recently announced he was quitting his post to head a new online venture at News Corp, said the move ‘will transform the company and the entire industry. It removes all barriers to entry.’

In addition to free set-top boxes, Sky sweetened the deal by offering free Internet access and cut-price telephone calls. Some of the investment will be clawed back by raising analog and digital subscription prices by $3 a month.

Booth also underlined Sky’s intention to switch off its analog signal by 2002 at the latest – a move which brought a positive reaction from the stock market. The announcement was also welcomed by Discovery, which currently offers a bouquet of seven channels exclusively on SkyDigital.

The pressure is now firmly on Carlton and Granada’s digital terrestrial platform ONdigital. So far, it claims to have attracted 110,000 customers.

For background on the digital TV market in the U.K., see the April 1999 issue of RealScreen at Andy Fry

FRANCO-GERMAN POW-WOW: ZDF and TVFI plan for future copros

After a two-day tte-ˆ-tte, ZDF Enterprises and TV France International have paved the way for future Franco-German collaboration. According to the folks at TVFI – an umbrella organization for French distributors, producers and broadcasters – the purpose of the meeting (held May 3 and 4 at the ZDF offices in Mainz, Germany) was to help French companies gain a better understanding of German programming needs. Topics discussed were ZDF’s programming slots, acquisitions and possible coproductions.

‘We agreed it would make sense that there is a contact not only between French producers and German television, but that it would also make sense to establish a relationship between broadcasters,’ says Dr. Kristina Hollstein, ZDF’s director of documentary coproductions. ‘In the end, if you have good relationships between broadcasters it’s good for the producers as well because those channels would participate in the production and would make possible a better production basis.’

According to Olivier René Veillon, TVFI’s managing director, 30% of French program sales are to Germany. ‘We have a very specific relationship with the German market and with the German channels. That’s why we wanted to have a closer relationship…with each of the major channels, beginning with ZDF.’

Broadcasters in attendance included Pathé TV, La Cinquième and Gédéon. No specific deals have yet been announced. Susan Rayman


The International Munich Film Festival (June 26-July 3) has more to offer doc-makers this year than usual – DM 15,000 to be exact, courtesy of Discovery Germany. The new Discovery Channel Award includes not only cash, but an offer to air the award-winning program on the Discovery Channel in the German-speaking territories.

‘We are beginning to feel big enough to show up on the landscape of awards,’ says Patrick Hörl, Discovery Germany’s head of programming. ‘We felt it was appropriate to donate a prize to documentary films which indicate how the future of documentary may look, and we just want to make a statement that we are looking for quality in non-fiction in our country.’

The winner of the Discovery award will be drawn from the pool of submissions for the sixth annual MediaNet Award, a DM 50,000 prize sponsored by the Free State of Bavaria. Hörl says prospective docs can be one-offs or mini-series, as long as they’re appropriate for TV, and the productions shouldn’t be more than two years old. The two awards will be handed out at the same ceremony on June 27.

In addition to the award, Discovery has a couple of other activities on the go at the Munich filmfest. Hörl says they plan to show Discovery’s second imax production, the 40-minute Wildfire, which would be the film’s German premiere. And, although it’s not definite, Hörl says it’s likely Discovery will offer a panel discussion on either the DCI/ZDF copro Otzi, The Iceman (a work in progress) or a space event. ‘Space is very popular here, and we have our own space and education magazine,’ he adds.

As a precursor to the Munich Film Festival, the European Documentary Film & TV Congress is sponsoring a three-day event, from June 23 to 25. For info, call 49-89-651-6282.

Susan Rayman

TURNER WOMEN’S CHANNEL? speculation abounds, but no confirmation

Reports that Time Warner is planning to launch a women’s-oriented cable network in the U.S. were resurrected with the recent announcement that CNNfn is entering an Internet alliance with, a website specializing in news and views for women.

Seen as a possible precursor to the announcement of the new network, there has been speculation in the trade press that Time Warner’s decision to move into the burgeoning world of women’s programming is a direct result of all the press attention garnered of late by the Oxygen Channel, another cable TV network aimed at women. Equity partners in the Oxygen venture are Geraldine Laybourne, Oprah Winfrey and Marcy Carsey. With an expected launch date of Jan. 1, 2000, Oxygen has a cable deal that ‘guarantees 3 million subscribers when it launches in January. Time Warner Cable, by comparison, has 12.6 million subscribers,’ according to a March report in Advertising Age magazine.

As for Time Warner, they are continuing to be tight-lipped about their proposed new channel. The trades are reporting that CNN Productions president Pat Mitchell is the prime contender to run the Turner Broadcasting System network. Jim Weiss, senior VP of public relations at TBS was unavailable for comment at press time. Christine Cowern


Mark Booth, chief executive at BSkyB, has left for a similar position at e-partners, a new media company owned by News Corp (which also owns 40% of BSkyB). News Corp will provide the new company with US$300 million in capital for start up.

William H. Graff has been named director of programming at Animal Planet in the U.S. Graff comes from WPIX-TV in New York, where he had been director of programming since 1995.

espn has promoted Ron Semiao to VP of programming. Semiao was previously director of programming for sister-station ESPN2.

New York’s Unapix Entertainment has announced that Jeremy D. Laws will head up their new stock footage and stills arm, Unapix Images, in Encino. Laws comes from LightPoint Entertainment in Los Angeles, where he was VP of marketing, licensing and merchandising. Susan Schick, previously of White Rain Films in Seattle, will handle Unapix Images’ footage from a Seattle office.

Vincent Chalvon-Demersay has joined Paris’ Marathon Productions as general manager. Previously, Chalvon-Demersay was co-general manager at Saban International in Paris.

New York’s Winstar TV & Video has appointed Natalie Osborne as director of international sales. Before joining Winstar, Osborne held a similar position at Toronto’s Behaviour Distribution.

Paul Hansil has been promoted to executive vice president and chief operating officer of Atlanta’s Crawford Communications. Hansil had been vice president of strategic planning. Also at Crawford, Jim Shuster has been promoted to senior vice president, from his position as vice president of satellite services.

Former senior account manager for the northern region, Donna Thomas has been promoted to vice president of digital distribution for the Discovery Networks.

New York’s DLT Entertainment has expanded its sales division with the addition of Jennifer Buzzelli as director of sales. Buzzelli joins dlt from National Geographic, where she served as international marketing coordinator and sales manager.

Moji Adejuwon has been promoted to vice president of network development, affiliate sales and marketing for the Discovery Networks in the U.S. Adejuwon was director of national accounts and development in the same division.

Clint Stinchcomb is the new vice president of national accounts at Discovery Networks in the U.S. Stinchcomb was previously the head of western regional sales. In a similar move, John Risinger has been named vice president of the southern region for affiliate sales and marketing. Risinger joined Discovery in 1998 as the director of the southern region.

Danielle Iversen has joined Toronto’s GPI Corporation as director of sales and acquisitions. Iversen comes to gpi from Ellis Enterprises, and prior to that, Alliance Broadcasting.


* Chrysler Corporation has agreed to come aboard as a major sponsor for the Unapix/Frontline production The Long Walk of Nelson Mandela. * A Discovery Channel Expedition has located the Liberty Bell-7 Space Capsule, which sunk ten minutes after splashdown in the Bahamas. * The Image Bank has acquired the footage license for Nature Conservation Films, Paneikon, Guy Neal Williams, SuperFlow Corp. and Zebra Film Productions. * CWC, one of the largest cable suppliers in the U.K., has signed with Discovery Networks Europe to carry DNE’s digital channels via cable. CWC is the first cable provider to carry DNE’s digital signal in the U.K. * Discovery Networks and BBC Worldwide have launched People & Arts onto Spain’s Madritel cable system. * The E! Entertainment Channel has come to an agreement with Zone Vision to launch a Russian-language version of E! into Russia. In related news, E! Online has signed its first international content deal with Tricast, one of Asia’s leading internet content providers.

* John Hendricks said recently that Merryll Lynch has valued the Animal Planet/BBC joint venture at more than US$1 billion in the U.S. * KERA 13/KDTN, public television in North Texas, has teamed with Irving, Texas-based HD Vision to collaborate on an hdtv special called Matisse and Picasso: A Gentle Rivalry. The project, a first for KERA 13, will debut spring 2000. * GAIAM Holdings of Boulder, Colorado, has acquired majority interest in Healing Arts Publishing of Santa Monica, whose Living Arts division is one of North America’s leading producers and suppliers of yoga videos and related merchandise. GAIAM is a leading distributor of enviro-friendly consumer products. * The History Channel and North Carolina-based SouthPeak Interactive are developing a web-enabled CD-ROM called The Ellis Island Experience. The project, to be released in spring 2000, features excerpts from the THC mini-series Ellis Island. * At Cannes, Seventh Art Releasing picked up North American rights to Karussel, a German holocaust film from Ilona Ziok.


BSkyB & Canal+ in new merger talks?

According to, merger talks are set to re-open between BSkyB and Canal+. As both companies are major players in the digital television and pay-tv markets, any merged company would occupy a dominant position in Europe. According to London’s Observer newspaper, the new talks follow a re-assessment by Rupert Murdoch of his engagement with digital television in Europe, and he may reduce or sell his investment in BSkyB even if regulators block a Canal+ merger. It is suggested that talks can now resume following the replacement of Mark Booth by Tony Ball as BSkyB chief executive. Pierre Lescure, chief executive of Canal+, would become executive chairman of a new, merged group. Both BSkyB and Canal+ have invested heavily in digital development. BSkyB is also under pressure in its main (U.K.) market from a reviving and consolidating cable industry. (courtesy

Another date for your calendar?

The Hollywood Reporter has reported that Helmut Thoma, former head of RTL and currently a media consultant for the premier of German state North Rhine-Westfalia, is planning a new ‘European TV market,’ possibly to start next year in Germany.

NHK offers US$10,000 for HD at Banff

Japanese broadcaster NHK will sponsor a master class on production in HDTV at this year’s Banff Television Festival. Those attending will be eligible to compete for US$10,000 in development funding for the best HDTV production proposal.

Winstar to rep BMG Indies

Winstar TV & Video has acquired the North American television and home video rights to the BMG Independents film library. The library, which contains 40 film and doc titles (including Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam and Kurt & Courtney), will augment the approximately 300 foreign, independent and art-house films the video distributor already represents.

X-Dream launches web rights company

On the heels of the launch of its Extreme Sports Channel in May, X-Dream International has launched a new company to represent and distribute programming and sports rights to the internet industry for use on the Web. The Extreme Sports Channel, initially launched in 19 European territories, is a co-venture with United Pan European Communications.

WGBH Int’l, Canal+ output deal

Canal+, the French pay-tv service, has formed an output deal with WGBH International, the sales arm of the Boston PBS station, for The American Experience and NOVA. Although touted as a coproduction deal, no details have been released on number of hours or dollar value.

SPI lands another Turkey

New York’s SPI International has inked a deal with Turkish broadcaster BRT to be their exclusive provider of programming. SPI already has a similar deal with JTV in that country. The distributor has thousands of hours of animation, docs and light entertainment in their catalog.

SPI has also announced that it will no longer just distribute Millennium Sports Moments, but will also begin coproducing the series with Steve Rotfeld Productions.

Emeril stays hot

The Food Network has signed Emeril Lagasse to a five-year, multi-million-dollar deal. The flamboyant chef will host 90 new episodes of Emeril Live as well as new specials and promotional projects.

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.