Sizing up the Industry

With advertising revenues down, producers and broadcasters have scaled back. But, while the quantity of programming may have suffered, quality has not. Programmers and producers have become more selective about the business they get involved in, and selectivity is a good business trait. Our need to understand the world is greater than ever, but the huge overhaul in subject matter most expected hasn't happened. Instead, the emphasis is on creating well-researched, well-conceived factual programs that veer away from superficial fare.
February 1, 2002

With advertising revenues down, producers and broadcasters have scaled back. But, while the quantity of programming may have suffered, quality has not. Programmers and producers have become more selective about the business they get involved in, and selectivity is a good business trait. Our need to understand the world is greater than ever, but the huge overhaul in subject matter most expected hasn’t happened. Instead, the emphasis is on creating well-researched, well-conceived factual programs that veer away from superficial fare.

Has the current climate, including the economy and Sept. 11, changed the kinds of subject matter you tackle?

Mette Hoffmann Meyer

Commissioning Editor and Head of Sales and Coproductions, Documentaries and Factual Programming

TV2 Denmark

It’s something I’ve been wondering about: are there things people don’t want to watch anymore? And my feeling is that we probably like to watch more films where we understand the world better, whether it stems from an individual person – a human interest story – or it’s a real investigative doc about Afghanistan or Kashmir or Nepal. I think there’s a need for people to understand what’s going on in the world: how can people become suicide bombers? What is terrorism? What is bioterror? I really tried to find films that are trustworthy, that are factually accurate. [But,] not in an old-fashioned educational way. I prefer to find a human angle to tell these stories, characters who can take us through the stories. I’m doing a little season on background human interest stories from Palestine and Israel. One of the films is called Life from Palestine and it follows the life of people working on Palestinian radio. And, I was involved in a film called The Settlers, which follows the life of three women in the settling families on the West Bank, to try and understand their thinking and to ask, why do people choose to live where they live? I just finished a season on life in Africa, called Steps for the Future. I’m basically looking for interesting subjects. Of course, I’m very much looking for films on Afghanistan, Pakistan and India at the moment.

Ellen Windemuth

Managing Director

Off the Fence (Netherlands)

We’re experimenting by pushing the envelope and giving people either a bit of a drama, or a bit more of an art film, or a bit more of a comedy. We’re stretching the genre to attract a wider audience and to expand on what was produced in the past. The very formulaic middle-range non-fiction that sold very successfully in the past can no longer be placed. We’re trying to escape the trash trap by expanding genres and having programs well researched, but with more entertainment value.

Michael Cascio

Executive Vice President & GM

Animal Planet (U.S.)

Everybody said there would be a sea change after Sept. 11 and the so-called reality genre would not be relevant, in fact it would look tasteless. And in the documentary world, even a documentary about the pyramids would not seem relevant when you should be doing a doc about terrorism in the Middle East or something. Some of that has proved true and some has not. I think in some senses the programming at Animal Planet, as a safe haven, is really differentiated. We’ve done a couple of documentaries dealing with efforts to rescue animals at Ground Zero (Tales from Ground Zero), but we’re not covering that and we’re not connected to that kind of reality or that kind of news-based real world programming. Our world is the natural world. So in that sense, there has been a change and people want that. I think the bigger change is in the documentary world. There are some documentaries that feel too light. Things about frivolous areas like Hollywood and stars and some of those lighter topics and even some historical topics haven’t done as well or haven’t been as resonant with the viewers as docs on Afghanistan or the World Trade Center that give you some perspective on your world. Our category, the Animal Planet category, doesn’t even come close to that, so we’re not suffering. But, I think there is a category of programming that has suffered as a result.

Gunnar Dedio

Managing Director

Looks Film (Germany)

‘We work on projects for a long time. Normally it takes a year, so we don’t change so quickly. Some projects were postponed by the broadcasters because of Sept. 11, because they only wanted to have things about the Arab world and Pakistan. But these projects are not cancelled, just postponed and we go on working on them. We are [currently] in Dubai for a project about falconry in the Arab world (A Hospital for the King of the Skies). There is more interest in that topic because people want to know more about the Arab world. But, we started the film before Sept. 11 and we’ll make the film after, so it really doesn’t have an influence, [except] maybe on sales… Another film that is quite interesting now, and became more interesting with Sept. 11, is about American foreign policy, taking the example of Romania. It’s called Checkmate and is about the revolution in Romania in 1989. It shows piece by piece how the revolution was directed by different secret services and different players.

Justin Albert

VP, Production

Animal Planet (U.S.)

For a channel like Animal Planet, an escapist channel, we’ve done very well. We’ve offered people a good alternative to hard news. So, since 9/11, when everyone was covering these awful events, if they needed a break, they came to us and a few other cable stations. Obviously, if you’re CNN or MSNBC, you’re doing phenomenally well now.

How has the worldwide recession affected your programming and/or business dealings?

Mary Armstrong

Head of International Production

Pixcom International (Canada)

In the wake of Sept. 11, we actually lost negotiations that were on the table. That was a drag. But, it forced us to get a little more creative. We haven’t had to put anything or anybody on hold for the long term. Maybe we’ve had to work a little bit harder, but there’s been no major impact yet and hopefully not in [the long term either].

Jennifer Buzzelli

VP, International Sales

Beyond Distribution (Australia)

Certainly on the sales and distribution side, on recent sales trips to Mexico and Miami for all the Latin American cable and satellite channels, there seems to be a big question mark over a number of people’s programming budgets, and obviously their programming budgets are directly and significantly affected by advertising revenue being down. But, I think you could look at it positively or negatively. Negatively, it’s just simple, if they don’t have the budgets, they’re not going to be buying programming. Or, if their budget’s been reduced, it could be your series that they don’t have the budget to renew.

The positive way to look at it is that for some of these channels, if their programming budgets have been cut, then perhaps what’s been hardest hit is original programming, because original programming is more expensive than acquired programming. Therefore, maybe if they have an original series that they now aren’t going to have funded, they’ll turn to acquired programming.

Ellen Windemuth, Off the Fence

We’re developing less bulk for local cable/satellite and more intricate films for free TV and global cable/satellite systems. We’re actually putting extra effort into the films destined to cross over to free TV, because they now have to be extraordinary to find a slot.

I’m taking a more dramatic approach to non-fiction and have moved away from reality-style projects. We’re trying to work on an increasingly higher quality, but financing this with limited exposure. Our cable/satellite bulk is reduced by about half, and our acquisitions and coproductions designed for multinational cable and free TV have expanded quite successfully from natural history and adventure into science, technology and history, which works well for us.

Has the economy affected the number of projects/copros you’re willing to get involved in?

Gunnar Dedio, Looks Film

We had to invest more in the projects we are actually producing. This means our original financing plans didn’t work out because the partners gave less money. But, in the end, we promised the product to the remaining partners, so we had to deliver. We invest more and, at the same time, we have to make sure that this money is coming back, so we are looking for other rights to sell them – we are looking for the dvd market, [or the publishing market]. In a way, we get more money out of this same project than we did before. I try to see it positively.

Ellen Windemuth, Off the Fence

I’ve lowered our acquisitions and copros this year by about 20%. We expanded a lot last year as we did a deal with Granada for about 100 hours. So, we have a great influx of wonderful new shows.

At the same time, whether we did or didn’t have Granada, we would still act more conservatively than before. I guess the country we’re having the most trouble with is the States which I find extremely difficult due to their current tendency towards very American subject matter.

Mike Morris

Marketing Director

C4 International (U.K.)

Funnily enough, it has increased the number of projects we’re getting involved in. When there are pressures on commissioning budgets and production budgets, there’s a requirement either to share risk-free coproduction or international finance. And from a broadcaster’s perspective, there’s an increasing demand for acquired programs, which are more cost-effective than their own productions. So, as with most distributors, economic slowdown is not necessarily as bad a thing for us as it would be for other industries. I’m just talking about the distribution business rather than production as a whole.

Has the economic climate affected the kinds of budgets you’re willing to tackle?

Ellen Windemuth, Off the Fence

If I know I can’t pre-sell a program or if I know there can’t be a free TV market for it, I’m increasingly reluctant to get involved. So, I’d probably not commit rather than say, yes, but I’ll do it for half the budget because this would inevitably result in bad quality.

Mette Hoffmann Meyer, TV2 Denmark

For individual broadcasters, the budgets might have gone down. I understand the bbc is paying less and Channel 4 is paying less. But, because we make more coproductions, we achieve bigger budgets and that way, for the independent producers, they sometimes manage to get the same budgets as before. But, it is really time-consuming, and it’s much more work to get this money together, because it varies so much. It depends on the subject and who the producer/director is. Sometimes people take chances and produce it anyway and lose money. Risky, but sometimes it really pays off.

When will things pick up?

Mary Armstrong, Pixcom International

In the spring or summer, because people will have to start planning for 2003 and 2004. It’s going to affect shows that are in production now for immediate delivery. But, we’re not doing many of those anyway. We’re looking at deliveries in 2003. We have reason to be optimistic. I think things are looking up already.

How are things going overall, whether in distribution or production?

Mike Morris, C4 International

For distribution businesses, a slowdown in world economic activity is not necessarily a bad thing… There’s a strange effect that in times of pressure on production budgets, you see a level of acquired programming increasing. The broadcasters, if they’ve left money to produce programming, will put more money into acquiring because it is slightly cheaper. On the straightforward completed programming sales side, from our figures last year and the beginning of this year, there’s an increasing demand for acquired programming. That’s partly due to the fact that when budgets are under pressure and schedules need to be filled, people are looking for cost-effective ways of filling their schedules.

Justin Albert, Animal Planet

Overall, things are going well. I’m optimistic. Recessions have positive as well as negative effects. Boom periods have positive and negative effects. In boom periods, people don’t look after their money so closely, bad programming gets on the air. Bad decisions are made because there’s no payback for it. In recessions, it’s the ebb and flow of our economy, a pullback time to essentials. It’s an extremely necessary thing to happen. When we come to the end of a recession, we’ll see a stronger business. It makes us think about what we commission more deeply. In the end of it, we make programs for the viewers.

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.