Striking a Balance

'The past three years have been very exciting for us,' claims Adam Kemp, editorial executive at BBC One. 'Factual programming has grown exponentially. It's been a boom time.'...
June 1, 2000

‘The past three years have been very exciting for us,’ claims Adam Kemp, editorial executive at BBC One. ‘Factual programming has grown exponentially. It’s been a boom time.’

Despite ubiquitous grumbling at myriad markets about the lack of money for public television, Kemp’s cheery hindsight is not unique. In fact, many commissioning editors claim that between 1998 and the present, factual programming budgets increased, if not extravagantly, at least in line with inflation. But, the dramatic rise of cable and satellite channels is noted as causing a shift of public broadcasting’s tectonic plates.

From a business perspective, commissioning editors generally agree that competition is healthy. Public broadcasters are streamlining operations (note recent and impending changes at both the BBC and Canada’s CBC) and filmmakers are responding creatively. But, the economic realities of operating a public service in an increasingly competitive market are changing the face of public TV.

Claims Peter McGhee, vice president national programming for WGBH in Boston, ‘There’s been a continuous diminishment of the public television sector around the globe over the past seven to eight years, and concurrently a decrease in the sense to which you can find an obligation to public service anywhere in television.’ McGhee cites the BBC as an exception, but is generally pessimistic about the Beeb’s ability to maintain viewer numbers if they are forced to compete in an increasingly commercial market. If this happens, McGhee warns the validity of the BBC’s universal license fee could come into question.

An undeniable trend toward programs with international subject matter and appeal is evidence that content is adapting to market changes. For the past three years, France 2 predominately aired national content in their various documentary and magazine slots. Hoping to attract and maintain viewers, this is now changing. ‘We have general channels, commercial channels, public channels and thematic channels,’ says Anne Roudan, program advisor with France 2′s documentary department. France Television, which governs French pubcasters France 2 and France 3, is currently preparing to add another six niche channels to the mix. Channels specializing in news, sports, youth (developed with French educational pubcaster La Cinquième), and arts and live culture (with La Sept/ARTE) are in the works along with a regional channel and a best of public TV channel. ‘The situation is in a state of great change at the moment in France. This is one reason for the decision to open documentary programs to international subjects,’ she says.

Here is a look at how three pubcasters spanning the globe are adjusting to changing demands in the international arena and where they see public television in the future.

United States

PBS: Exploiting the back end

‘In the last couple of years, we have been growing our

programming budget. We’ve been able to do that partly because we’ve been making better deals for our programs,’ says John Wilson, senior VP PBS program services. PBS has moved from simply licensing programs for broadcast to being involved in all aspects of a program’s life. Explains Wilson, ‘We realized the distribution of a program on PBS brings great value to the program and we want to receive our fair share of what we contribute.’

To fully exploit the value that programs bring to PBS through sales and ancillary markets, the pubcaster has established strategic partnerships with distributors such as Washington’s Devillier Donegan Enterprises. Wilson explains that distribs bring complimentary strengths to a project and, therefore, allow for the greatest range of options. The end result is that investments in one doc generate money for other programming.

‘One of the things that makes us different is that we start with the show,’ continues Wilson. ‘We look at the business side of it to see if it’s the kind of show that has beyond-broadcast revenue-generating potential. For the shows that don’t generate that back-end value, the value is all in the show itself and what it brings to the schedule. We’re okay with that. We just make sure we’re paid a fair share.’ PBS began initiating changes in fiscal year 1997. As of fiscal year 2000, programming budgets increased 50%. (Programming budgets for 1998: US$154 million, 1999: $173 million, 2000: $232 million.)

PBS was indirectly affected by government funding cuts suffered by agencies that support public television, such as The National Endowment for the Humanities and The National Endowment for the Arts. Changes in the nature of corporate underwriting are also causing funding structures to become more complex. Dalton Delan, executive VP and chief programming officer for weta in Washington, D.C. says CEOs will no longer underwrite a ‘love project’ forcing producers to find funding from a variety of sources. ‘You now have a situation where you have to put together a coproduction jigsaw puzzle. A piece from corporate, a piece from foundations, a piece from CPB [Corporation for Public Broadcasting] or PBS. It’s very hard to put together and it requires exquisite timing.’

Investors are also needed from farther afield. Explains Wilson, ‘Increasingly, and I don’t think this is unique to us, much like it takes a village to raise a child it takes a globe to fund a documentary series. You really need the international dollars to make things possible.’ But, changes in foreign markets have reduced the number of coproducers. ‘As a trend, I’m fairly certain the number of coproductions in the U.S. is declining,’ Says McGhee. Delan agrees, adding, ‘I think in general we’re seeing a little less money out of Europe and that certainly hurts a bit.’

Although the acrobatics needed to fund a film continue to challenge public broadcasters, current upheavals may simply be growing pains in an evolutionary process. McGhee explains that the rise of dot-com companies has brought new underwriting to public TV, but he’s unsure as to how long it will remain in the spectrum of support.

‘I think we’re looking at a difficult time as always, but I think these are still good times,’ proposes Delan. ‘Perhaps it’s a little more complex an equation each year, but hopefully as old things change or decline, slightly new things come in the mix to take their place in the funding scenario . . . Nobody knows yet in what way we can get an additive element out of the Internet. It isn’t here yet but it’s coming somewhere in this decade.’

To this, Wilson adds a few words of warning: ‘While [international copros] work for some types of programs they don’t work for stories that are closer to home. We have to be mindful that we’re not constantly drawn to what will export well. We should keep our eye on how we can continue to do that because that’s the way the world works, but also be mindful of how we can make stories about our viewers here.’


ARD: Quality, not quantity

‘If we’re making programs that are not attractive, sooner or later the public will ask themselves if they are prepared to pay ARD’s license fee. I don’t want to have that discussion, so I’m doing attractive programs.’ Thomas Schreiber, head of culture (which includes all programming genres except news, sports and entertainment) at ARD/NDR in Hamburg, is explaining why he is producing and acquiring fewer docs, despite the fact that programming budgets have consistently increased above inflation rates in recent years (NDR’s 2001 programming budget is in the mid U.S. seven-figure range, 60% of which is devoted to factual programming). Continuing into fiscal year 2001, Schreiber will spend more money on a smaller number of projects, intending those that are produced to be high quality films. To make up for the reduction in new program hours, NDR is slightly increasing the repetition of older docs.

Alternatively, Brigitte Wauer, head of international relations at ARD/ORB in Potsdam – one of ARD’s smaller stations – is increasing documentary programming. ‘Docs make up about 25% of programming. It’s our main interest,’ she says. One reason for this is factual programs are less expensive to acquire than feature films or dramas. Another reason is that docs have been good investments in the past. Wauer refers to a two volume series produced by the station, which was founded in 1992, titled The Fall of the Wall, as an example. The first volume (73 x 15 minutes), which had a budget of US$663,000, aired in 1994. The second volume (90 x 15 minutes) had a budget of US$1.2 million and aired in 1999 and 2000. ‘I sold this program in a lot of countries in Europe, Asia and South America,’ says Wauer excitedly. ‘This is also on home video in German speaking countries. I have now found an American coproducer [The History Channel] and we want to make a new, shorter version with an American narrator.’ An internet component was also launched last October, where viewers can access historical summaries and voice documents, and share personal experiences.

Both ORB and NDR acquire more programs than they commission or coproduce. Schreiber attributes this to the issue of manpower. Despite the fact that most acquisitions need to be translated into German and reformatted from the more common 52-minute film to ARD’s 45-minute time slots, purchasing docs requires much less work than a new film. Says Schreiber, ‘Working internationally makes us richer in knowledge and experience and it forces us to see what is being produced globally, but it’s not always easy. We’re not a global player like the BBC. We are much more decentralized and language is a problem. It’s very easy for the bbc internationally – they can sell to the U.S. and it can be broadcast without being translated.’

None the less, in 1999 ARD’s financial arm met with unprecedented sales of ARD programs. Commissioning editors are now working towards maintaining ARD’s presence in the international arena. While Schreiber recognizes the future most likely rests in international partnerships, he has mixed emotions for the effect this will have on public television. ‘Currently, German public television is fit. A lot of people needed the competition from commercial stations. We slimmed down in personnel and bureaucracy and there’s more slots, more programs and more channels than before,’ he explains. ‘But, it’s a very competitive market, and you have to be on guard every day. To put it quite bluntly, the commercial competitors in Germany would like to see the market divided so that they do what is sellable and acceptable – and we do the rest.’


ABC: Investing in diversity

‘We were hit extremely hard with government cutbacks about three years ago,’ remembers Dasha Ross, deputy commissioning editor, TV documentaries. ‘There was an enormous cut to the annual funding of the ABC. We

experienced minor degrees of cutbacks since then. That means we have to drive our dollar much further. It puts continual pressure on us. We cannot do everything we want to do and that’s really frustrating.’

One approach to stretching budgets is through diversifying output. A new, 30-minute observational docu-series slot now airs Tuesdays at 8:00 p.m. Not only does a series cost less to produce and promote, but it allows viewers to return week after week, confident of what they will find.

Despite cutbacks, ABC’s natural history unit has continued to operate under healthy budgets , but changes are afoot. ‘Once upon a time we aimed to make all blue-chip natural history, now our output is much more diverse – we are doing a lot more cross genre programs,’ says Dione Gilmour, commissioning editor, ABC NHU. ‘There’s also diversity in terms of cost per project. Different styles of projects come in at a lower price, although they’re still high quality. The contrast could be roughly US$100,000 up to us$1 million.’ She later adds, ‘I think [the change] is indicative of market demand and I think we’ve had to be more imaginative with our money. Those two together have been quite a positive force. If you put up difficulties, people have to think their way around them. Natural history programs look a lot more interesting now than they did in 1997 and 1998. But, a well-made blue-chip is still going to get the audience in.’

Both ABC TV documentaries and the ABC NHU depend on external sources (such as international coproductions, the Australian Film and Finance Corporation and Film Australia) to fund projects. Due to the decreases in government funding and market changes, these sources are becoming increasingly important. Says Ross, ‘In the early ’90s, the majority of broadcasters would have said about Australian documentaries, ‘That’s kind of interesting.

We’ll see it on completion’. What we’ve been strongly advocating is breaking down that resistance and working up relationships with international broadcasters.’ According to Ross, attending market events and pitching forums allows her to understand the type of projects international buyers and coproducers are interested in, and gives her an idea of where ABC sits in the global arena.

Similarly to PBS, Gilmour is partnering with a distributor to help navigate an increasingly complex global market. ‘You have more sales outlets with cable and satellite and I think what’s happened as a result of that is we’ve become much fussier about our distributor,’ she explains. ‘I used to wander out into one of the marketplaces and try to pre-sell our programs in one of the territories, and that was fine. Now I wouldn’t dream of doing that. The marketplace has become a lot more fragmented and a lot more sophisticated, so you get the most sophisticated, knowledgeable distributor you can. Distributors have become much more important people in my life.’

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.