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The Whole Package

Most non-fiction producers know doc-making isn't just about the content anymore - great stories only go so far in a 300-channel universe. There's also the sell, and when it comes to the sell, it still has to be done the old-fashioned way: packaging and advertising. While promotion is generally out of a producer's hands, packaging is an area where a little planning can go a long way.
July 1, 2003

Most non-fiction producers know doc-making isn’t just about the content anymore – great stories only go so far in a 300-channel universe. There’s also the sell, and when it comes to the sell, it still has to be done the old-fashioned way: packaging and advertising. While promotion is generally out of a producer’s hands, packaging is an area where a little planning can go a long way.

Traditionally, show packaging has been an afterthought for many doc producers – a quick text treatment dropped in during the edit. But, with a strong channel brand critical to capturing viewers, broadcasters are insisting on packaging that pops. In fact, they’re now inclined to step in and take over the design element themselves – or hire outside design companies to do so – if the producers’ packaging does not meet their criteria.

The basic elements of a package are fairly consistent: an opener, an end-credit bed and bumpers to take the show in and out of breaks. But, that’s just the start. A full package will have straps (lower thirds for text), supers (text on vision), location bars, information boxes (think VH1′s Pop-Up Video), scrolling info-bars à la CNN, and a host of other elements branded with the show’s design.

So, where to start? Guy Slattery, the London-based head of on-air promotions and presentation for National Geographic Channels, advises: ‘Before you even think about packaging, speak to the channel that has commissioned the show. We’ve got a very clear set of guidelines and brand rules we provide to producers. Don’t just make a title you think is going to be right for your show, think about where the show’s going to air.’ He adds that wherever it makes sense with acquisitions, Nat Geo tries to rebrand programs into existing strands such as ‘Riddles of the Dead’ or ‘Built for the Kill’.

Nat Geo offers a style guide and a tape of elements to third-party producers, and even has elements available online on a password-protected site. A typical Nat Geo set of deliverables will include a 15-second title sequence, five-second bumpers and a 15-second end-credit bed, as well as straps and supers as required.

If a producer opts to use an outside designer, it’s advisable to get in touch as early as possible. Ada Whitney, creative director at New York-based packaging company Beehive, notes that the price of an opener alone can range from us$5,000 to $50,000. But, she adds that piggy-backing shoots for openers and other elements on to program production can significantly lower costs.

‘Producers – especially doc producers, because they’re on shoestring budgets – don’t leave money for titles,’ she says. ‘You can do really compelling openings for a reasonable amount of money, which can make a big difference in how the show is perceived… If it’s considered when you’re shooting and doing your budgets, then you have the flexibility to collaborate on something that will really set the tone.’

For non-fiction openers, Beehive – which has done work for Travel Channel U.S., HBO and TLC, among others – usually begins with an audio bed and then adds visuals, building a story that reflects the mood and content of the program, Whitney says. For that reason, she asks for input into music selection.

In Hollywood, the Troika Design Group builds a package to client specifications. It begins with a logo design, which partner Dan Pappalardo dubs the ‘most critical component’, then extends to a range of treatments that look to capture the tone of the show. The company aims to provide clients with three stylistic options, but will often do wild cards to see if they are willing to take risks.

Designers usually like to root packages in a concept that encapsulates the program. When Troika was working on Comedy Central’s Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn, it found an anchor in the look and feel of a boxing poster. Tough Crowd features Quinn and his guests sparring over difficult subjects, so the program opener shows quick cuts of Quinn’s scowling mug (superimposed on what looks like a boxing poster), surrounded by words such as race, religion, politics and sex, printed in blood-red type. Even before Quinn weighs in, the treatment sets the mood and lets viewers know that no topic is out of bounds.

The company, which has designed for E!, MTV and the Style Network, can produce a typical package in two to six weeks. Cost is highly variable depending on the elements required, such as shooting days, stock footage use and animation sequences.

While going with an outside design company offers several advantages – expertise and time saving being two – there is also an upside to keeping the job internal, most notably cost. Nat Geo’s Slattery estimates a 75% savings when work stays in-house. Nat Geo tries to set aside six weeks for the design process – two for development and sign-off and four for execution, although it has been done in two weeks. Observes Slattery, ‘Cost is the main reason, but you can also creatively manage something better if you’re sitting in all the way through the process.’

About The Author
Meagan Kashty is an associate editor of realscreen, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Meagan is an award-winning business journalist. Prior to joining the realscreen team, Meagan was online editor of Canadian Grocer, named Magazine of the Year at the 2015 Canadian Business Media Awards. She can be reached at mkashty@brunico.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @MegKashty

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