Whether I am buying or selling programs, it seems that life for my predecessors was so much easier.
When I joined Dutch pubcaster AVRO Television back in 1990, commercial television had just started in The Netherlands and competition was (and still is) fierce. Not only did we compete against commercial TV, but there was also internal competition. Dutch public television is hard to explain, but in short, there are various stations (eight large and many small ones) who share airtime on three channels, and all of these stations had their own buyers. To avoid bidding wars within public TV, there was a unique system in place. Once you read that Steven Bochco was thinking about a new series, or that Spielberg was spotted reading Jurassic Park, you could register your interest in a central database, lean back, wait until four seasons were produced, screen 20 episodes, and negotiate for a standard fee at your leisure. Once your interest was registered, no one else was allowed to buy the program.
Majors and other distributors wept, but there was nothing they could do – until commercial TV started. Then, they abandoned the system, acted quickly, bought packages and did not cherry pick. I still remember the ravings and rantings of various buyers who just could not understand that a series they had ‘claimed’ was sold. I also remember finding a market diary of a previous buyer at AVRO: a meeting in the morning. A lunch. Perhaps another meeting in the afternoon… What a difference compared to the 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., back-to-back meetings we are all accustomed to now.
Then I was asked to join UPCtv, which had just started eight thematic channels, to fill their own and other digital platforms with low-cost content. There, I learned about various tiers and many, many acronyms like SMATV, MMDs, EFDs, etc. The acquisition department had carte blanche and was buying like a maniac. This quickly changed. It seemed nobody was interested in buying a decoder that sounded like a vacuum cleaner and cost €500.
The channels did not get enough distribution. One by one they were shut down, upc stock plummeted from €80 to one cent, and to buy a half hour, you had to get approval from the channel manager, managing director and an approval board in London. It all ended when the last channel was shut down.
After a relaxing summer (during which I read many books and painted the house), I joined Off the Fence, the award-winning non-fiction producer and distributor in Amsterdam. Suddenly I sat at the other side of the table, selling programs.
In the old days of distribution you sold to free terrestrial, maybe cable, and that was it. A simple life, and rights were managed with an Excel sheet, or perhaps a simple database. No more. Broadcasters keep adding the most obscure means of transmission and rights to their acquisition, IPTV channels are coming, and suddenly we talk about download-to-own, the Internet, streaming, catch-up TV, etc. It’s a nightmare! Not only because the definitions of all these rights and transmission systems are interpreted differently, but also imagine trying to enter all this into your rights management system.
In April 2006 we started working with the Venice Project, now known as Joost, where we have a few channels and around 200 hours of programming published. Availability checking for ‘new media,’ however, was a nightmare. There is no database that will tell you what’s available for, say, free ad-supported Internet TV. So it became a manual job, checking each program to see if any of the pan territorial broadcasters took it, and if so where, so we could block those territories. (As a side note, I do think it is time to look at the rights taken by the big boys, as all these direct-to-consumer businesses are generating revenue and we should either agree on a revenue share or go non-exclusive with these on-demand rights.)
At Off the Fence, we worked on new definitions and amended our rights management system, deal memos and long-form agreements to cope with the new world. By talking about it and looking into future developments, we realized it should be simplified, to make rights management and buying/selling easier.
First, we should stop talking transport: xDSL, mobile, cable, MMDs, DTB-H, IPTV, DTT… Who cares how the signal gets to the user? Second, in the future, viewing devices (TV, PC, mobile or iPod) will converge.
So, why not just look at the business model: is it free for the user or does he pay? Is the viewing linear or on-demand? That’s all the info we need. Territories would still apply and to maximize revenue it comes down to windowing and (non)exclusivity. Let’s keep video/DVD for a while, as people still like a nice box. But, once bandwidth and local/online storage becomes abundant, I assume this business will slowly diminish.
Maybe Reed MIDEM can organize a seminar on this next MIP? I’m not sure I would like to sit on the panel though.