Unlikely as it may seem, this will not be another editorial about how fair or unfair broadcasters are being with producers. Fresh from the RealScreen Summit (and all the conversations I had there), I can’t help but feel that horse has been whipped enough for one winter. No, this rant is about something that’s happening to the broadcasters, something more sinister which will have a huge impact on everyone else.
Although it seems benign enough, one of the most disturbing factoids to come out of this year’s Factual Price Guide survey is that, on average, almost 50% of all funding for documentaries comes from broadcasters. (The survey indicates about 20% of funding comes from distributors, and a slightly smaller amount is self-financed by producers.) It shouldn’t be surprising, because that’s been the production model for decades.
But, the reason this little piece of data is so ominous is because the TV model is in the process of splintering, and few seem prepared for what’s to come. TV is broken and technology is to blame – and it’s not just the internet.
Take TiVo and Replay TV for instance. If you haven’t heard those names, you will. (A few people mentioned them at the Summit, but not many.) TiVo and Replay TV are set-top boxes that allow viewers to electronically record hours of television so they can watch it when it’s convenient. It allows them to fast-forward, rewind, or dump programming to a VCR. It will rate programs, set up viewing schedules, suggest programs’ etcetera…etcetera…
The problem is, in all the literature, the TiVo and Replay TV people don’t mention that what these boxes actually allow viewers to do is completely avoid advertising – watch a program you recorded an hour before (without commercials) while you record your next hour ahead of time. Buy this box and you will never have to watch a commercial again. (As a matter of fact, a recent New York Times survey found 88% of commercials were skipped once American viewers got used to the boxes. A similar study in the U.K. (conducted by the Henley Centre) found that 30% of viewers watched fewer ads when they had interactive television.) It doesn’t take a genius to see what this will do to an industry completely dependent on advertising dollars. Lower the value of commercials, and you undermine the income of broadcasters. And, if half of a doc-maker’s income is coming from that source, well…
It’s time to diversify – look to other models. Maybe it’s time to revisit what worked before advertising – a straight sponsorship model. What about product placement?
I’m not sure what the answer is, but as was brought up repeatedly on the floor of the Summit, broadcasters aren’t picking up the complete bill, and everything suggests this trend will continue and increase. There is a revolution on the horizon, and those who prepare now will be the only ones who thrive later.