Looking ahead with the heads

With the New Year upon us, realscreen caught up with a group of senior-level execs from the major facets of the non-fiction industry - production, distribution and broadcast - to gather forecasts for 2009. What's making them giddy, nervous or just plain hopeful?
January 1, 2009

With the New Year upon us, realscreen caught up with a group of senior-level execs from the major facets of the non-fiction industry – production, distribution and broadcast – to gather forecasts for 2009. What’s making them giddy, nervous or just plain hopeful?


As MD, you’re constantly creating and developing new programming. What are some of the programming trends you sense broadcasters are hungry for in 2009?

With the economic climate as daunting as it is, one thing we’ve focused on in our development for the last six months is finding programs that are aspirational and have a positive message, as you can see with our upcoming unscripted [self-help guru] Tony Robbins project for NBC. Telling great stories that allow people to escape from their problems and be inspired by seeing somebody turn their life around is definitely a window that all the broadcast and cable networks are going to be looking at.

Also, the traditional themes come in cycles. Will there be another great game show? Absolutely. Deal or No Deal is still a solid show and everyone said after Who Wants to be a Millionaire there’d be no other game show. Then after Deal everyone said, ‘The game show is dead.’ But it isn’t dead – it’s [more about asking] ‘What is the new iteration of that?’ I’m sure we’ll definitely see those arenas come back strong.

One of the things we’re definitely seeing from networks is a push to ‘eventize’ their programming – how can they make it must-see TV? As we see cable and network ratings get ever closer, one of the things networks do around big sporting events or award shows is big, live event programming. Obviously American Idol is a prime example of it and so is our Biggest Loser finale, which, like the Survivor finales, is live. We always experience an uptake in those finales, partly because it’s the culmination [of the season], but also because no one knows what will happen. That’s something we’re going to see a trend towards.

You’ve expanded The Biggest Loser into a lifestyle brand with consumer products – is that a concept you plan to roll out with other Reveille shows?

Definitely. One of the things we’ve done since the inception of Reveille is look to exploit the television property in other arenas. It’s two-fold: one, it’s an ancillary revenue stream, but more importantly it helps to promote the show. Biggest Loser isn’t just on NBC on Tuesday nights; you can see it in the bookstore, in the video section and in the health section. Whether it’s tied into our sponsors and their marketing and promotional materials in Subway or 24-Hour Fitness, it’s another way to let the audience know where and when to find us. It’s very dangerous to rely only on the network to promote your show.

As the producer of shows like American Gladiators, Nashville Star and 30 Days, Reveille is such a strong brand. As someone who has been with the company since its inception, describe Reveille’s role in the unscripted programming community.

We are unique in the fact that we are probably the only independent company that can truly call themselves both a scripted and unscripted studio. We often get approached by players in the scripted world that want to play in unscripted. Also, we take behind-the-scenes talent we’ve used in unscripted shows and use them on scripted shows, as we did on The Office with the DP [Randall Einhorn, who'd also worked on Reveille's Adrenaline X]. We don’t try to confine ourselves to boxes of ‘scripted’ or ‘unscripted.’ We just look for great ideas.


Most recently you were president/GM for Discovery’s Planet Green, moving to TLC in the same capacity this past July. What are the challenges you face with taking over TLC?

As Discovery Communications’ second-largest brand, TLC has tremendous potential for growth. My long history with Discovery and TLC gave me the opportunity to hit the ground running and focus on some immediate goals, such as building out TLC’s bicoastal presence by hiring the best possible team. Together, we’ll keep nurturing our successful tent pole programs like Jon & Kate Plus 8 and What Not to Wear, and use that awareness to launch new series and genres.

Where do you see the best opportunities to generate new revenue for the brand?

I’ll be working to build off our successful brands, like Little People Big World, and using them as launch pads for new shows that will resonate with our viewers and our advertisers. It’s also important to find new ways to connect with our viewers, whether through emerging digital platforms or with new commerce opportunities. Our most popular series, Jon & Kate Plus 8, is also doing well on DVD, through branded merchandise and has a book on the bestseller list. It’s about building an emotional connection with our audience both on and off the TV screen.

While you were head of Discovery Health [from 2003 to early 2007], the channel earned record ratings in all day-parts. How do you plan to achieve that with TLC?

Our team is looking across the board to build off our popular programs, and at new genres. It’s an all-hands effort. A show like Say Yes to the Dress, which just wrapped a successful second season, is a great example of a series that benefited from the strategic combination of scheduling, marketing and communications. I developed that show during my interim time at TLC [in 2007] and it’s continued to evolve as a compelling series that fits into the wedding genre – a new growth area for us. The show serves as the perfect complement to What Not to Wear – one of our strongest properties.

You started at Discovery Communications during your university days. Are there any timeless business principles you subscribe to that will help lead TLC through what’s expected to be a challenging year for television?

I’ve had the opportunity to work across disciplines during my tenure here, and that has given me great insight into how all aspects of the company run. One of the principles that Discovery is celebrated for is its commitment to quality, which has influenced everything I do. I’m also so proud of our environmental stewardship; Discovery has long been a leader in best business practices. The company was truly ‘green’ before that became a cool buzzword. That commitment led to the launch of Planet Green last year, which was a wonderful achievement, both personally and professionally.

Should producers and distributors approach you in a different manner now that you’re the GM of the channel?

I don’t think they should approach me differently, it’s just important to know that TLC is indeed open for business and that we welcome submissions. Our goal is to deliver a quick ‘no’ or an enthusiastic ‘yes’ once we evaluate a project. We’re proud of our strong production partnerships, and of the diversity of production companies that we work with. We’ve been building a very strong development and production team, led by Nancy Daniels, to ensure that this year is paved with powerful content.

As the gap is narrowing between cable and network viewerships, how is the role of the cablecaster changing?

I think everyone can agree that the audience responds to strong, quality programming, and while the playing field is indeed much bigger, the competition has increased for both audience attention and the best possible content. Cable is in a great position now, because a majority of today’s viewers have grown up with cable and don’t discern between network and cable – they’re just looking for great programs. As a result, we need to continue to be a destination for trusted, valued programming.


You’ve been CEO for three years, since DCD Rights was still NBDTV. What surprised you coming into this industry?

The thing that surprised me most – and bear in mind that I came out of an arts background going into factual – is how time-sensitive and how fast the slightly more controversial documentaries sell. So something such as Pregnant Man, which has sold into 24 territories internationally, has been more like an event. What surprised me is that you can have these event documentaries, but the appetite for the controversial documentaries seems to be growing. That’s something we’ve been pursuing.

What are some of the main issues DCD Rights is currently facing as a distributor?

In order for distribution to really make money on factual programs, producers need to have an eye towards America as well as the UK and much more general, international subjects. I think it’s been very helpful to DCD having the distribution division so integrated with production because we’re quite conscious of steering ideas towards more international themes. I think the American market is enormously important in factual. The standard of production in the UK is tremendous and is really translating very well into the US market at the moment, provided people are careful with having available voice-overs that can be changed to an American voice. And people with strong [British] accents need to be understood by other English-speaking territories. With on-screen presenters, in the case of somebody like Stephen Fry [the host of the DCD Rights-distributed Stephen Fry in America - see 'And One More Thing'], you’ve got a very major personality and attractive host on your hands, so you want more of someone like that on the screen, but in the case of general factual, we mainly prefer to have voice-over so that it can be versioned for international.

Your company gained access to a rolling fund of £10 million a few months ago. How does that change things for you on a day-to-day basis?

We’re looking at blocks of programming being produced around the world and we’re searching mainly in America and the UK at the moment. We’re looking for the larger-scale projects. Our target is long-running factual series, but we’ll also be acquiring in drama. In terms of scope, it’s based on international sales value, so we’re able to push an advance against a percentage of sales – typically 30%, which can provide a really important part of the funding for a new documentary or series. By MIPTV, we should have a considerably larger program slate through using the fund.

You have a sizable catalog with roughly 750 hours of non-fiction programming. What are you most hopeful about this year in terms of working with the producers making those programs?

I’m hoping to help producers trigger production on shows because, in the current financial climate, license and commissioning fees are coming in far too low. So I’m hopeful that we can be a really helpful cog in the producers’ repertoire of how they get through these next couple of years.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.