Factual’s Three-Way Stop

When asked, 'If you had to focus on only three doc genres to sell, which three would you pick and why?', Factual Price Guide survey respondents put their money on a cluster of sure-fire bets.
March 1, 2003

When asked, ‘If you had to focus on only three doc genres to sell, which three would you pick and why?’, Factual Price Guide survey respondents put their money on a cluster of sure-fire bets. History landed in the top spot as the most marketable genre, followed by natural history/wildlife in second place and science/technology in third. As one pollee who voted for all three genres commented, ‘They have a long shelf life, they are generally high quality, they are in demand on cable/satellite as well as free TV, and they interest me personally.’

John Lindsay, executive VP of Carlton Productions in Princeton, U.S. (a unit of Carlton Productions in the U.K.), says he has noticed a predominance of history-themed copros – fed, he opines, by the downturn in economic conditions and the pressure on broadcasters to make every dollar count.

History shows have a proven track record with viewers around the globe – particularly programs about the 20th century and ancient history, Lindsay observes – so broadcasters consider them relatively low risk. And by working with partners, channels can air top-dollar productions, he says.

Lindsay continues, ‘A cable company that two years ago might have funded a US$175,000-an-hour [program] now wants one that’s $350,000 an hour, but they put up half the money. [Coproducing] allows them to have something on the air that has impact.’

Carl Hall, MD of London, U.K.-based prodco Parthenon Entertainment, says in his experience, civilization’s oldest stories tend to give the strongest return on investment. ‘Ancient history is easiest to sell, because it appeals to a much wider audience – it’s not country-specific,’ he observes. Parthenon’s new production Stonehenge Rediscovered, a 50-minute one-off, fits that bill, Hall contends, because it examines the roots of the heavily visited U.K. site and suggests that the people who put up the Neolithic monument once populated all of today’s Europe.

History programs may be popular, but it can be tricky figuring out which stories are the most marketable. As Olivier Brémond, CEO of Paris, France-based Marathon Productions, explains, ‘Everybody says, ‘We want this kind of program,’ and then six months after it’s something totally different.’

His advice is simple: Get to know programmers so you know the best way to meet their needs. Hall offers an additional nugget: ‘I think the rule of the game is to try to make something different from whatever everyone else is doing. Don’t follow the crowd.’

Natural history has seen its fortunes decline more than climb in recent years, but based on the survey results, it’s still considered a bankable genre. According to Carlton’s Lindsay, buyers remain interested, but they want something new. ‘Most broadcasters I know are waiting for someone to reinvent it,’ he says.

Hall agrees, and points to Parthenon’s Last of the Dragons as an example of a natural history program that takes an unconventional approach. The 50-minute story traces the evolution of the fairy-tale scourge by focusing on present-day reptiles, as well as those found in the fossil record. ‘The most successful wildlife films now are disguised, giving them much wider appeal then they would have had five years ago,’ he says. Dragons has been picked up by National Geographic International.

Science docs are strong, as the survey indicated, possibly owing to the allure of higher returns. Big science specials often land primetime slots, with their higher fees, Hall remarks, though he’s quick to add, ‘You really have to be embedded in that business [science].’ Hall offers another caveat: ‘With science, you have something that has a much shorter shelf life; in fact it could almost be out-of-date before the program is actually made. So, that is a much higher-risk, quick-kill scenario.’ But as any investment banker will say, higher risk can mean a sweeter reward.

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.