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Surviving in the new order

Many producers involuntarily flinch when they learn a senior executive at a broadcaster is moving on, and Nick Catliff, managing director of London-based prodco Lion Television, may be able to explain why. He compares the ensuing unease in the production industry to living 'under the court of Louis the XV.' When a new channel head takes the throne, Catliff says producers are left to wonder 'Who's up, who's down? Am I in, am I out? Is this good news or bad news for me?'
January 1, 2008

Many producers involuntarily flinch when they learn a senior executive at a broadcaster is moving on, and Nick Catliff, managing director of London-based prodco Lion Television, may be able to explain why. He compares the ensuing unease in the production industry to living ‘under the court of Louis the XV.’ When a new channel head takes the throne, Catliff says producers are left to wonder ‘Who’s up, who’s down? Am I in, am I out? Is this good news or bad news for me?’

Why are they so concerned? How much, after all, can one top-level exec affect a channel and its tone? What are those X-factor qualities that make one exec stand out from the last – or next – person filling their shoes? And, perhaps most critical for those who deliver programming to these channels, how can producers adapt to the never-ending game of executive musical chairs?

It’s important to acknowledge the seismic change an incoming exec can create. Think back to 2004, when Jane Root moved from controller of BBC2 to EVP and GM of Discovery Channel. At that time, Root recalls, there was a sense that the abundance of car- and motorcycle-focused programming in the schedule was starting to be viewed negatively by advertisers. The audience, she furthers, also perceived Discovery’s brand to be narrowing. Root’s reaction? Steer Discovery away from those kinds of shows since, as she says, ‘They weren’t right for that brand at that time.’

Root helped lead Discovery towards series like Deadliest Catch and Planet Earth, and the channel achieved double-digit ratings gains in 2007. There was also a drop in prime median age from 41 to 37 between last November and the year before. Root, who recently left the channel to return to the uk to pursue other media opportunities, recognizes the positive in situations ‘where you hand the baton on and [a brand takes on] a slightly different flavor and mood.’

Taking the baton at Discovery Channel is John Ford, who was announced as the new president and gm in November. In helping to set the tone of the channel, Ford emphasizes the importance of surrounding himself with a strong team and giving them ‘authority, responsibility and accountability.’ He dismisses the notion that Discovery revolves around the head of the channel: ‘I think rather the opposite,’ he says. ‘I’m not the best violin player, I’m not the best tuba player, I probably can’t play the bassoon or the oboe, but I do know that we should have an orchestra that should have a wood section, a string section and a brass section, and we all have to be playing the same tune.’

But leading a broadcaster entails much more than assembling the right team – it also takes individual vision. Eric Schotz, president and CEO of Encino-based LMNO Productions, has produced several shows for Ford, during both Ford’s time at National Geographic Channel (where he was EVP of programming) and while he was with Discovery Health. ‘[Ford] knows what he’s looking for,’ says Schotz. ‘He’s come in saying: ‘I want this, I want this. This is the direction I’m headed.”

Ford tries to relay that vision to producers by encouraging something he calls ‘disciplined creativity.’ Instead of asking a producer to simply build him a show, Ford will specify what he expects for its budget, delivery date, genre and tone. He also says he’s upfront about his ratings expectations, telling producers ‘If it doesn’t do the primetime average we have right now or better, I’m not going to renew it.’ This level of direction spurs creativity, says Ford ‘because people then go ‘Okay, I’ve got some boundaries I can deal with.”

If it helps filmmakers to have boundaries, it’s likely they’ll also appreciate an exec who can relate to them. Steve Burns, EVP of content at National Geographic Channel, comes from a filmmaking background and is able to talk with filmmakers on a level ‘that gets down to the nitty gritty of how you put sequences together.’ He tries to honor that creative freedom so that the filmmakers can produce to the best of their abilities, he says.

But all the creative freedom in the world doesn’t matter if an incoming exec stops a production in its tracks – a scenario with which many producers can relate. When a new exec comes in and analyzes everything that’s on the go, says Lion’s Catliff, it can negatively impact producers. ‘Just by them looking at things slows things down, and we all know that when that happens in the later stages of development, more and more reasons will come out why a show doesn’t happen,’ says Catliff. ‘Every time a senior executive moves there will be hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of development just blown away across lots of different companies: in-house producers, exterior producers…’

To protect themselves from those situations, Root advises producers to learn the perspective of the incoming person, so that they can see if their project might fit in. That may involve a bit of recasting, she says, or tweaking to reach a slightly different audience. ‘Sometimes it’s annoying,’ she says, recalling her own days as an indie producer. ‘You feel like ‘Wasn’t all this agreed? Wasn’t all this sorted out?’ and then you have to have an open-mindedness about going back to the drawing board.’

‘That’s always the joke… You get something commissioned and then the bastard leaves’

- Nick Catliff

LMNO’s Schotz agrees. When a new exec steps in, he says, ‘there’s a new direction, a new opportunity, versus ‘Oh my god, I lost this project, this and this.’ Understand who’s in the chair. What is their vision? Do we have the goods to make somebody’s vision come true?’ And even if one exec turns down your show, adds Schotz, you may be able to sell it to their successor.

And don’t put on the blinders when it comes to making your pitch, advises Nat Geo’s Burns. Many filmmakers are so focused on pitching the top exec that they don’t consider their relationships with the production managers and executive producers with whom they work. ‘My best advice for filmmakers would be to establish in-depth, trusting relationships that span the entire network infrastructure so that when an executive does leave, they don’t find themselves out in the wilderness,’ says Burns.

Putting yourself in the network exec’s mindset also helps, says Phil Fairclough, who may have an easier time with that skill since he was previously SVP of production at Discovery. Now evp of production and development at Washington’s Creative Differences East, an indie prodco, Fairclough says pitching a great idea is one thing, but ‘you also have to try to understand the business goals of the network, and that can be a bit tougher. Producers have to be businessmen as well, and put themselves in the hot seat, and think ‘If I were running that network, what would I be looking for right now?”

Ford is a supporter of that approach. ‘I want producers who thrive on success with audiences and really think like programmers in that respect, and actually know the answer to: ‘How did your show do [in the ratings]?’ Where they can actually tell you the number, and not say ‘Oh, pretty well.’ That doesn’t tell me anything. I value producers who think like programmers to some degree.’

In Ford’s case, he insists thinking like a network head doesn’t involve his own tastes. ‘I’ve got to park my personal tastes at the door. I am not here to program for John Ford, I am here to program for the audience, for our shareholders, and for the people who take pride in what they do here.’ Even so, one person always has to have the final say.

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