In development

Realscreen spoke with Jeremy Dear of Pioneer, Smithsonian Channel's Chris Hoelzl, LMNO's Jen Mayer Kulp and Iain Taylor of Cineflix about the current media landscape, what broadcasters want and what audiences look like today
November 1, 2008

What are the main factors affecting the way you’re doing business today?

Jeremy Dear, Pioneer: We do most of our business in the States; about 80% of our projects have an American partner or exclusively us commission. So we’re very sensitive to trends in the American market. The biggest thing at the moment is what’s going to be the impact of the economic situation. We’ve found in the last year or so the American channels are very keen to wholly own their projects. They want to commission not just for the us market but they also want to hang onto international rights, so they’ve been slightly less open to coproduction. Clearly, in a situation where money is going to get tight, that might well change. If coproduction comes back onto the table it means we’re going to be looking for projects that have transatlantic appeal again, as opposed to an exclusively British or an exclusively American one.

Iain Taylor, Cineflix: You can’t avoid the ‘R’ word at the moment. We haven’t specifically noticed the economy having a big impact on us yet, but obviously it will have an impact on the industry. We’re hoping that perhaps the pain might be staggered a bit because we are big in three different markets (the US, UK and Canada). Canada’s economy has held up relatively well compared to the us, so if Canada does take a dip perhaps it will come a bit after the American one so it won’t all go downhill at the same time. Maybe that’s wishful thinking.

The other thing for us is that, because of working in those three markets and having a distribution company, if broadcasters are slashing budgets they will be looking for more value for money, which means possibly more interest in coproductions or those models where a company that can bring extra money to the table from distribution advances and things like that might benefit.

Chris Hoelzl, Smithsonian: For me, it’s rights more than anything else. A couple years ago, everybody talked about convergence and multiplatform – that’s really here. Our ability to exploit a production over as many platforms as possible is key to the success of the program and the network. The question of how you deal with rights issues is something a lot of people didn’t have to worry about even five or 10 years ago. If you cleared a program and there was archive in it you cleared a program for broadcast. No one ever heard of distributing through the Internet. Now you have one of those great programs you’ve been running for 10 years and you can’t run it because you didn’t clear it.

What trends are you seeing with broadcasters?

Dear: There’s been quite an interesting return to big, traditional subjects recently. I think the audience interest in big, blue-chip ideas has never gone away. What we see now are broadcasters wanting to revisit those areas, big areas like space, geology and earth sciences. All of those things are very much in demand at the moment. There’s an appetite for big science, big history projects.

I think the market is very vibrant at the moment. Again, this is prior to the impact of the credit crunch being felt, but certainly there’s a lot of demand for factual programming across America.

In the UK it’s hard to generalize because the BBC is so specifically different than what’s going on elsewhere. We’re doing a lot with Channel 4, some of it coproduced with America. Five is starting to find it’s feet again after a period of flux – the arrival of Dawn Airey as the head has helped to stabilize things there – and we’re having productive conversations with people there in the factual department. The change we’ve seen in the BBC, from our point of view, we’ve actually had a very productive dialog with them as an independent, and that’s the first time in a long time. I feel now there’s a real openness as opposed to a professed openness.

Taylor: It used to be that you could pitch things verbally and follow up with paper and take it from there. That’s still, to some extent, the case in the UK and Canada but in the US it’s hardly worth bothering unless you can show a bit of tape. So that’s having quite an impact on how we develop shows because obviously you have to choose carefully what projects to put those resources into. I suppose broadcasters expect a lot more before they take a risk. People are afraid to put money up unless they feel certain it’s going to work, so they want more and more material, more tape, more convincing and they want to pay less.

At the same time, on the positive side, people are still almost ambivalent towards risks, where people are afraid of taking risks but they know they like ideas that sound risky because they’re the ones that will break out and feel original, they just need a lot more persuading to go for it.

Jen Mayer Kulp, LMNO: The biggest trend is everything has to be able to spin out for more than one season. In terms of factual they’re looking for formats that have worked really well on a broadcast level, something that can spin out into a docuseries on a cable outlet. I think everything they’re buying is generally helmed by someone who is legitimate, an authority in their field.

I think broadcasters are traditionally piloting more and taking less risk. You’re used to seeing larger series orders, and now you’re seeing a lot of presentations, a lot of pilots and a lot of casting reels being ordered.

What’s happening in production?

Hoelzl: There are a few things I’m seeing. One is a return to brand quality. I see this across history, science and discovery, and National Geographic, is one in particular. But all this return to brand quality, these shows that can be landmark specials, they don’t always deliver the rating promises, so the daily bread and butter of a lot of channels has been to go into the reality genre. Everybody’s doing their version of Dangerous Catch or Ice Road Truckers, but the other side of that is there’s a real hunger for factual programming. I think as more and more people do HD and more people get high definition sets and convert, and the digital switchover era to HD, there’ll be a desire for really high quality visual programming.

What’s your take on what some people are calling ’360-degree commissioning?’

Dear: I think it’s a lovely idea in principle. I personally feel 360-degree is important, however the primary driver for our business, and I’d venture to say for broadcasters, is linear TV. Obviously everybody’s looking at other ways of exploiting a new means of distribution, but at the moment, and I would argue probably for the immediate future, the other aspect – the other nonlinear aspects – whilst important, shouldn’t be the tail that wags the dog.

I’ve been going to conferences for many years where we’ve been told that everyone’s business model is completely screwed because of the arrival of new technology. I remember hearing that in ’96 and ’97, and it just hasn’t happened. New technology is a good example of everyone underestimating its impacts in the long term, but overestimating it in the short term. In a sense it’s everyone rushing to not be seen to be lagging behind.

Taylor: Not all [broadcasters] are looking for online. A lot of them know they want something, but they don’t know what they want. Some, you can tell that their departments are almost a separate entity, so the TV person is not interested in what the online people are up to until the show’s made and then they start communicating, and others are more integrated. It does vary quite a lot I think.

Hoelzl: From my perspective, my job is to make media available to the widest possible audience in my area and territory. But I doubt that is actually 360. I’m concerned about being able to work on a couple of platforms, but not necessarily all the platforms all the time. So you have to make a decision about how much that piece of the pie is going to cost you. I’m predominantly interested in us, North American rights. My partners in the cable and telco industry are interested in the ability to deliver my service across a variety of platforms. So we have to be able to meet their demands. The other side goes to brand equity. For us, we wouldn’t want to be investing in properties we couldn’t fully exploit in other media such as download-to-own or even DVD, so why would you spend a lot of money to create or acquire programming with your brand to see someone else come in and take advantage of that and your territory?

Kulp: We’ve had a huge push here in terms of developing series that either span out and become cross-network promotional vehicles or have tremendous multiplatform opportunities. I think it’s really key to selling a successful series. You’re seeing a lot of online components, a lot of viewer participation, and a lot of new ways of going about mobile content. I think you’re trying to immerse your audience 360-degrees into the world so they feel like they’re a part of it.

How are audiences changing?

Dear: They have more choice. New technology is an interesting thing to discuss here because studies show people are spending more time on the Internet. But there’s a study out in the UK recently that [says] television watching isn’t diminishing because of the amount of time people are on the Internet. Recent research points out that actually it has risen among young people. Whilst the Web is a very concrete presence and it’s something that can’t be ignored, TV isn’t necessarily suffering. They have to compete more, absolutely, but people are still watching. What it does mean is that people have a lot more competition between channels. Audiences are much more ready to channel hop, they’re much more prone to hit the remote. It’s much more important to keep them hooked with good storytelling and good visuals above all.

Taylor: The UK is still catching up with North America in the way viewers behave in the multi-channel environment, but they’re catching up very quickly. Increasingly in the UK you’re seeing broadcasters trying very hard to punch above their weight and get noticed in the EPG listings, and making sure viewers know what to expect and when. In America that’s quite mature, the way those viewers behave in that environment.

Hoelzl: [Viewers are] spoiled for choice, and that’s not just on television. There are a lot of things competing for people’s attention. People can pick and choose the topics they’re interested in, and this puts a lot more pressure on advertisers to market their brand and market their shows, to get their attention.

The real question is now, how are people going to view this product?

Kulp: I think audiences are sampling more and staying less. You’re seeing more of an appointment viewer versus a channel surfer.

How has the development job changed?

Kulp: You have to wear a lot of hats now. It’s not just about throwing a bunch of things against a wall and seeing what sticks anymore. It’s more about being able to identify trends and understand the way the industry is headed, and always staying on top of or ahead of the curve. You have to be a multi-hyphenate. You have to be a salesman, a producer and a writer. You have to be able to understand budgets and identify weaknesses and you have to understand that at the end of the day, the product you’re selling has to actually be produced by someone.

Hoelzl: I think you have to be interdisciplinary. You’re being required to understand levels of detail and be involved in a lot more decision-making than you weren’t before. So I think development and programming have morphed. I think legal and business and programming have morphed. Everybody has got these little Venn diagrams that intersect with all these different areas, and you’re having to understand that intersection area more and more often. So you have to assimilate a lot more data a lot more quickly in a lot of areas that there was no need to in the past.

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.