Feeding a hot trend can translate into big audience numbers, but timing is everything. Viewers glom onto a topic for only so long before rushing over to the next subject du jour. Right now, environmental-themed programming is on the top of many broadcasters’ wish lists, and while producers clamor to meet the demand, there is always the concern that a program created to satiate a hot trend may end up in a broadcaster landfill with other green-themed programs because it was only a passing fancy.
For example, producers say eco programming wasn’t even on broadcasters’ radars this time last year. Pamela Healey, VP of development at Los Angeles-based High Noon Entertainment, says the fear over how to tackle greenhouse issues had buyers concerned about overwhelming audiences. Scott Myers, VP of development at Raleigh, North Carolina’s Distillery Pictures, pitched an eco lifestyle program to buyers called Green Home Today in early 2006. ‘To be honest, the buyers we originally went to weren’t exactly leaping onto this,’ he admits. ‘They said no one would want to watch a show on the environment because the viewers would just feel guilty.’
What was the tipping point? Obviously, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth proved to be a surprise success in cinemas, and add to that a surge in enviro-themed articles featured within the pages of popular magazines, such the May 2006 Vanity Fair ‘green’ issue or Newsweek‘s look at environmentalism last July. Just as Distillery pitched an environmental show even before broadcasters knew they’d want it, some producers argue it’s up to the creative forces behind TV programming to be on top of emerging trends before they reach the psyche of acquisitions execs and covers of magazines. That way, when a broadcaster wants it, producers can show concepts and deliver quickly.
Jeremy Dear, VP of development at London’s Pioneer Productions, says it’s important to have accelerated conversations on the more trend-based themes because there’s no guarantee an appetite for these types of programs will exist in eight months’ time. For a producer, the main risk is that their program will not be first to the market. Striking while the zeitgeist is hot means Pioneer accelerates its normal work rate and invests development resources to write, research and create various manifestations of shows in order to get them to the market within weeks. Programs such as C4′s SARS: Killer Bug and Tsunami: The Wave That Shook the World went from pitch to broadcast in less than six weeks.
Looking at eco themes, Distillery is quick out of the green gates. Filming for the It’s Easy Being Green special (formerly Green Home Today) for us cablenet Fine Living ended in October for a delivery date in the first quarter of 2007. ‘For environment programming, we do have a challenge because technologies are emerging quickly, so we have to be fast to be topical. But in the long term, there is going to be an ongoing interest in this area,’ Myers says.
Green is a magazine format that takes environmentalism into seven, six-minute bite-sized chunks, lessening the doom and gloom often associated with ‘fixing’ global warming. Segments include how to make a difference with big-ticket items, such as creating a green garage with hybrid cars; eco-travel and environmentally friendly hotels; and smaller choices such as changing to halogen light bulbs. He says the key is having a motivated consumer base that wants to know what to do in their daily lives, and focusing on information that hasn’t yet been exploited. The one way to ensure that is to get the information out to the broadcasters first. This will be a good testing ground for Distillery – if the program is successful, Myers says the team will revisit the themes and pitch Green as a series.
Speed may be important, but coming into the winter of a trend doesn’t necessarily mean a program will be dismissed. Chubby Children from London’s Sam Brick Entertainment explores ways parents can address a possible childhood obesity epidemic in their own home. The prodco’s format made its debut on UK cablenet Living TV in September, and will have an American premier as Tubby Tots on America’s TLC. The Stateside cablenet already broadcasts the similarly themed Honey We’re Killing Our Kids, so Brick, the company’s CEO, had to be mindful of audience fatigue. First, the US version skews to look at the eating habits of toddlers, and focuses the overall tone of the series on positive outcomes, small things parents can incorporate into their preschoolers’ lives. Brick has also added a charismatic host who just happens to be a successful nutritional expert. ‘I’m not a fan of the shows that tell you what to do or else your kids will be fat. What makes our show different is that it shows parents what they can do,’ says Brick.
Folding a hot trend into other tried-and-true programming approaches, such as the cult of celebrity, can also shift a program into a more evergreen status. For its one-off eco special, Distillery enlisted the help of hybrid car owner and top actor Owen Wilson to talk about the benefits of green transport. Jesse James, the motorcycle maven, also spoke about the eco-friendly fast food joint he built beside one of his chop shops. By using the power of their names and the passion behind their advocacy, celebs help get the point across while creating buzz. ‘If we continue on with this program, we will attempt to nurture this along,’ Myers says.
Los Angeles’ Madison Road folded three trends together, and received a lot of column inches in newspapers last October for a series in the early stages of development. Celebrity, ecology and the popularity of reality series are exposed in E-Topia, which was being pitched to the top four American nets at press time. Titanic star and outspoken environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio is championing the show. ‘If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have gotten a lot of the attention from the networks,’ admits Danica Krislovich, senior VP of programming and executive producer on the series.
There’s no magic formula to ensure a program doesn’t end up in an anonymous heap along with a glut of other trend-based series from the competition, but High Noon’s Healey suggests producers lean heavy on research, and remember a show will never sell purely on tone and style. Educational studies are a great resource for trend hunting, and Healey says digging back as far as three years can find an emerging trend that could evolve into a TV show. ‘There’s a reason why the studies were commissioned in the first place,’ she says.
The news and what people are saying outside of the television world can also inspire. Pioneer’s Dear points to the war on terror and environmentalism as issues that are top of mind for audiences, and although these topics may seem spent, he insists they are still in their infancy and there’s no sign of them burning out.
Most producers say markets tend to follow the hot topics in the US and UK, but even if a show is intended for an American audience, it’s important to look globally, especially given the increasing importance of international coproductions. While trends do cross borders, each show should be pitched to suit a particular market, just as Brick did with Tubby Tots for TLC. But in the end, Dear stresses producers should not rely on a passing audience fancy to make a show work: ‘With a trend, you’re just getting great marketing for what should be a great program.’