Finding out what the commissioners really want

ABC Australia: The necessity of copros...
August 1, 2000

ABC Australia: The necessity of copros

By Ed Kirchdoerffer

In the land of Oz, coproductions have heightened appeal of late. Budget cuts of aus$42 million (US$27.4 million ñ as reported in RealScreen Dec.’99), the weakening of the Aussie dollar and inflation have made the cost of acquiring international productions much more difficult, says Dione Gilmour, head of ABC’s Natural History Unit. ‘With our budget restraints we’re pushing more into coproduction, and that will become even more important than it has in the past.î

Because the ABC is funded by the Australian government, its copros must have a regional subject (Asian/Australian/ South Pacific), or involve Australians either in front of or behind the camera. Consequently, ABC usually initiates projects or joins forces with independent Australian prodcos and then seeks international financing. According to the ABC’s charter, the pubcaster has editorial control over its copros, but allows participating international partners to re-version programs.

ABC has focused its dollars on ëbig’ series as opposed to one-offs ñ ones that will draw audiences and acclaim.

ABC has output deals with the BBC and Channel 4, its chief natural history suppliers. Recent BBC acquisitions include Blue Planet (8 x 50 minutes), Wild South America (6 x 50 minutes) and Life of Mammals (10 x 50 minutes).

At present, the amount of natural history programming on ABC is in a cyclical decline and doesn’t air in any fixed time slot. ‘People were starting to get a bit bored with natural history and the audience’s taste changed,î Gilmour says.

However, she does believe audiences will come back for quality docs, whether they are blue-chip or shot on a shoestring. ‘You have to be selective,î she says. ‘Some blue-chip programs are awful, some are brilliant. Audiences aren’t stupid. If they like it, they’ll stay with it. They don’t think about it like we do.î

Distribution rights vary, based on who will be the most efficient at selling the shows. ‘Australian licensing fees aren’t worth a lot because of our population, so we usually put in far more . . . because [it gives us] more rights,î Gilmour says.

NHK: Focusing on HD

By Ed Kirchdoerffer

Japanese public broadcaster NHK has not traditionally been in the market for natural history programming, but with the upcoming launch of an HD digital channel this December, that may be changing.

According to Suguru Sato, NHK’s senior associate director of acquisitions, the pubcaster isn’t interested in pre-buying, but does want to coproduce. ‘If the proposal seems interesting and suitable for NHK, we will get in touch with the production,î he says, adding that a company willing to show initiative and send the proposal in Japanese will certainly have an advantage. NHK regards images originally shot in HD or 35mm film as HDTV material, and usually doesn’t accept programs shot in Super 16.

The Japanese pubcaster seeks shows that fit into half-hour and hour slots ñ longer series are not suitable for its current needs. It does not have a specific natural history production budget. If NHK initiates a copro, it kicks in at least 50% of the cost; 10% to 30% if originated by another company. NHK contributed to over 60 hours of coproductions in 1999 (all genres). The pubcaster generally asks for the editorial rights to re-version the program for its viewers, and requests copyright and rights for exploitation based on its contribution to the coproduction.

In addition to Hi-Vision (HDTV), which debuts on December 1, NHK has two terrestrial channels and two satellite channels. NHK airs one regularly scheduled weekly natural history strand, Global Family, on one of its terrestrial channels. The umbrella series ñ a collection of high definition natural history films ñ is produced mostly in-house or through coproduction, primarily because of the lack of HD programming available worldwide.

The channel also airs primetime natural history specials. Recent acquisitions include Jaguar (Survival Anglia, U.K.), In the Wild (London’s Tigress Productions) and several Sir David Attenborough BBC specials, including The Life of Birds (10 x 50), The Private Life of Plants (6 x 50) and Lost World, Vanished Lives (4 x 50).

NHK has not announced the programming slate for its digital HD channel, but chances are good it will be more open to proposals for programs shot in HD as more become available.

Animal Planet U.S.: Show me a character

By Ed Kirchdoerffer

If you’ve got a character ñ human or animal ñ Animal Planet wants to talk to you. ‘We’re looking for programs that differ from traditional blue-chip natural history ñ stuff that takes a double-edged approach by being character-oriented, with high production values and information people are looking for,î says Bill Graff, Animal Planet’s director of programming.

It is characters on such shows as Crocodile Hunters: Croc Files and Big Cat Diary that appeal to Animal Planet’s 18 to 49 viewer demographic (male and female), ‘[Either] people who the audience wants to get to know or animals that the audience becomes fascinated with because of a particular process that they are going through,î Graff says.

As a result, Animal Planet is expanding its danger/ adventure strands, which focus on experts who literally get face-to-face with animals. The channel is developing programs with Jeff Corwin (Going Wild) and shark expert Ian Gordon for its Sunday night strand, TV with Teeth. Graff explains, ‘We find shows that follow people studying animals in an up-close and personal way ñ as opposed to hiding in a bush with a camera ñ attract a younger audience that’s more personality and story-oriented.î

Animal Planet is geared more to entertainment than its sibling networks, Discovery and TLC, and views broadcast networks and entertainment channels like USA, TBS and TNT as its main competition. Character-oriented series make up two-thirds of Animal Planet’s primetime lineup; the other third consists of more traditional blue-chip natural history documentaries under the umbrella title of Animal Planet Safari.

When it first launched in June of ’96, Animal Planet focused heavily on acquisitions in order to build its library, but now devotes 75% of its development budget to commissions and coproductions, Graff says. Most series are in the 13 to 26-episode range and fit into 30-minute or 60-minute slots. The only series Animal Planet isn’t interested in are programs about fear of animals or ones that exploit them.

Animal Planet secures U.S. broadcast rights but often tries to acquire (sans conflict with a copro partner) the rights for its six international channels, which have the option to decline the programs, as each is empowered to produce and develop its image as it sees fit.

Télé-Québec: Exploring science and nature

Canadian french-language broadcaster Télé-Québec programs a wide array of nature, science and exploration docs. The schedule emphasizes wildlife and science, as those genres provide the most highly rated programs on Télé-Québec, and are strong with adult males.

Science docs (many of which have a natural history component) make up one to two hours a week on the schedule. The En Plein Nature slot programs films about wildlife, with a particular focus on people interacting with animals. Everything from birds and fish to ëbig animals’ are fair game for the channel, says program

manager Odette Bourdon, who’s in charge of acquiring science and natural history programs.

The En Plein slot is 60 minutes long, with 30 hours programmed each year, plus additional half-hours during the summer and Christmas season. Around 15 to 20 completed hour-long docs and 10 to 20 half-hours are acquired annually.

Program manager Diane Belanger is responsible for commissioning new programs and says she licenses two to three hours of natural history docs each season. Recent commissions include La Grande Mouvée, about the seal hunt and the seal reproduction cycle, which was produced by Max Films of Montreal.

Télé-Québec often takes first window French rights on projects with English broadcasters attached, such as Quelle Aventure!, a 13-episode series produced by Montreal’s Les Productions Espace Vert. The series, which will air this summer, has also been licensed to Life Network and TVOntario (in Canada), and Discovery International.

I look for programs that find new ways of treating natural history and [that] surprise audiences,î says Belanger, ‘and I look for all sorts of different subjects.î

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.