So whatcha want?

As content buyers and sellers converge on Cannes for yet another installment of MIPCOM, realscreen contacted international acquisition execs in broadcast and distribution to find out who's buying what, how the topsy-turvy global economy has impacted the buying business, and importantly, just where do the buyers hang out while in Cannes?
September 1, 2009

Bun Scrase-Dickins, VP Acquisitions, BBC Worldwide Channels

What sort of factual programming are you in need of for BBC Knowledge and BBC Lifestyle?

We have various theme nights in the schedule so we’re always looking for content to maintain those slots. At the moment we are keen to see food, home and design and possibly some gardening for BBC Lifestyle. Series are preferable as one-offs can get a bit lost. For BBC Knowledge we need long-running documentary series at the moment and are considering building a slot where we can showcase great one-off docs that don’t fit into any of our usual strands.

We are always interested in shows that are presenter-led with familiar faces that our audience will trust to amaze them with intelligent and horizon expanding topics. As well as serious factual content, we also acquire lighter programming and at the moment are looking for younger-skewing, adrenalin fuelled travel/adventure/survival shows.

What are a couple of recent successful acquisitions you’ve picked up?

Space Age: Nasa’s Story; Space Odyssey: The Robot Pioneers; Moon and Space all performed well during a recent Moon Week stunt on BBC Knowledge. Stephen Fry in America also generated strong ratings, while Louis Theroux: Law and Disorder in Johannesburg proved a hit with South African viewers, improving its average time slot performance by a massive 358% compared to the last three months.

As you buy content from around the globe, are there any regions that are on an upswing in terms of producing sellable content?

Our primary source is still the UK, though we will be looking further afield at MIPCOM at what other public service broadcasters are commissioning. Documentaries particularly are available from a wide range of non-UK suppliers.

Are you looking for more HD content, what with BBC HD and the recent launch of BBC America HD?

We hope to see more and more programming made in HD as we would always want the highest possible quality transmission materials, but it still needs to meet all our editorial requirements and be an excellent show that will work within our line-up.

How has the downturn affected what you’re looking for in terms of programming – any genres that you’re seeing less of, or more of?

We want to show programs that are relevant to our viewers’ lives and the recession has hit everyone. Various programs have cropped up in documentary, drama and lifestyle genres that address ways to save money and look at how we ended up in this position, but equally there is a mood for more ‘feel good’ shows as audiences don’t always want to be reminded of the doom and gloom of real life.

Any other emerging trends you’ve noticed?

With the downturn people are once again becoming equally fascinated and appalled by the world of big business. Dragon’s Den and The Apprentice are big brands for BBC Knowledge and I suspect there will be more interesting formats around this theme emerging over the next year.

Outside of the old standbys (The Carlton terrace, the Majestic) where’s your favorite place to take a meeting in Cannes?

It’s always great to see a bit of daylight and get out of the Palais, so I’m a fan of the trend that Fremantle started with the beach-based stands.

Nicolas Deschamps, head of acquisitions, Arte France

What documentary slots are available on ARTE France now? Are there any specific genres or topics that you’re looking for at present?

There are more than 10 documentary slots on ARTE – artepro’s website ( is perhaps the best way to have a clear view of what we are seeking.

This year we provided several daytime slots for all kind of genres (documentaries, series, kids’ programs, music). ‘Faraway Places’ is a daily documentary strand; we use this slot to really see the world through the eyes of others. It’s an opportunity to give viewers a wide vision of the world they live in. We are also on the lookout for a solid unscripted format that could be adapted for the channel’s purposes. This could be anything from a talk or magazine show to a factual-entertainment program. It’s a work in progress; there’s no concrete slot for this yet, but we wish to modernize the way we talk about culture.

The channel also hopes to create long-term viewer loyalty by engaging young viewers through our weekly kids block targeting eight- to 12-year-olds across animation, docs or magazines, based around science, nature and discovery.

How has recent economic turbulence affected acquisitions for ARTE – has it affected the amount or the quality of productions that you’ve been pitched?

As a publicly funded broadcaster, ARTE is not directly affected by the advertising crisis, even though the hardware costs (DTT, HD, mobile TV) are growing significantly. Thanks to our exceptional stability we were able to maintain our acquisition budget and were beyond the hard turbulence some broadcasters have had to face. Talking about the quality of productions we’ve been pitched, the risk, which is a key element in all creations, is sometimes missing. Risk means having to accept the possibility of failure if you want to find a new passage and we can understand that is a difficult choice to take nowadays. Hopefully this period where historically big players remain creatively silent allows new players to emerge: Scandinavia, Israel, Korea, Latin America… in all the cracks of today’s economic turbulence you will find tomorrow’s opportunity.

Several years ago, ARTE began looking for more ‘docu-entertainment,’ in order to reach a younger audience. Is that still a part of what you’ll be looking for?

To my eyes, MIP is a gigantic garden with all kinds of species, each very different. The magic of the exchanges means that one day, [we'll have] the birth of a new hybrid specimen. I am in Cannes to seek this new flower. I’d like to rethink the way we talk about culture through original formats that can draw from new technologies.

Carlyn Staudt, senior vice president, global acquisitions, National Geographic Channel, Washington

Given that you’re buying for a range of channels, can you tell us what you’re looking for this year for each?

For the National Geographic Channel (NGC), I’m always on the look out for strong science one-offs and limited series. It’s one of the primary genres of the channel and thus constantly needs to be fed with content. Also at the top of the list are access-driven contemporary stories to fulfill our ‘Inside’ strands in the U.S. and internationally. For natural history and engineering, there is more of an appetite internationally, as the slots on the U.S. channel are currently limited and driven primarily by coproduction or commissions. Bible subject matter seems to strike a chord with our audiences globally and that is a niche genre that will be on my wish list moving into this fiscal year. With respect to the NGC, one-offs and limited series certainly drive the majority of what I buy.

For Nat Geo Wild, the range of acquisitions across the natural history genre is very broad with respect to the topics and format. Cheetahs: Against All Odds from Nature Conservation Films and Superfish: Fastest Predator In the Sea from Wildlogic both rated very well internationally this year and have proven to me that there will always be a healthy appetite for blue-chip material. I also look for limited and multipart series that can be easily stripped across a schedule. These types of series are the lighter animal docusoaps and clips shows such as Zoo Tales from Cineflix Intenational, Game Ranger Diaries from IMG or Caught In the Act from Parthenon.

The focus in the coming year for Nat Geo Adventure will be acquiring limited and multipart travel series that focus on unforgettable trips where you will experience the best destinations in the world, get immersed in the local culture, the flavors of the country and the spirit of its people.

Whit Higgins of NGC US once told us that he thought producers may ‘censor themselves’ when pitching to NGC, not being aware of the dynamic nature of the brand. Do you think that perception exists from producers and distributors as well? How would you counter it?

My best bit of advice for them would be to watch the channel over a period of time as well as access our websites both domestically and internationally to study the schedule. They will be sure to notice that the channel is dynamic and diverse with regard to topics, genres and storytelling approach. That said, I think it’s a fine line that distributors must walk between pitching their entire catalog to a buyer and being too targeted in their presentation. I would suggest shooting more towards a middle ground where you present material that meets the channel’s needs once you’ve researched the current content but also allow for a few out-of-the-box pitches.

When retiring after a hard day of meetings in Cannes, what’s your drink of choice?

Is this a trick question? When on the French Rivera, I didn’t think there was any other answer then a nice glass of rosé.

Jeff Tahler, vice president, acquisitions & development, FremantleMedia Enterprises, Los Angeles

It’s been a busy two years for you since coming to FremantleMedia Enterprises (FME). What are some of the more successful titles and formats you’ve acquired for international distribution thus far?

The formation of our relationship with the Travel Channel has been very successful for us. We feel we have been able to take their titles – such as Bridget’s Sexiest Beaches and Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations – to another level internationally and we are bringing two new Travel Channel titles to the market this year, Forbes Luxe 11 and Ian Wright: Out of Bounds. We have also really prospered from our relationship with Spike TV who has seen tremendous growth in the last couple of years with titles such as DEA and Deadliest Warrior that are growing in popularity around the world and our new titles for MIPCOM that include Jesse James Is a Dead Man and Surviving Disaster. Lastly, we are continuing our long-standing relationship with The Weinstein Company on Project Runway – and now Models of the Runway – which has found success in the U.S. tape version and local formats around the world.

What are you looking for currently in terms of factual?

We are primarily focused on series. We continue to look for the ‘blue collar male’ shows that Original Productions is so good at. We also continue to see the growth in ‘fashion/lifestyle’ based programs and are really looking to continue our growth in that area as well.

Are there any emerging trends in North American factual entertainment programming that you think will be the ‘next big things’ for international audiences?

I am interested to see how the ‘soft scripted’ genre will evolve. I believe that shows like Laguna Beach or The Hills will be the prototype for a new lower-cost hybrid model that will feel like a straight docusoap but have elements of scripted in them. I don’t think it needs to be put into a genre box as long as it is entertaining to its target audience.

At MIPTV, FME announced several first look deals with high-profile scripted drama producers, which reflected what Paul Abbott called ‘an investment in imagination’ in the face of a turbulent global economy. How has the economy impacted your business on the factual side, and is FME looking to be similarly bold with its factual/reality business?

Yes, we will continue to be similarly bold across all genres and not just in the U.S. but globally. FME is unique in that not only do we have varied ways of engaging producers through first look deals, deficit financing, co-productions, [and] development deals, but we have points of entry around the world in the Americas and throughout EMEA and Asia Pacific.

We’ve made a conscious decision to keep looking at growth opportunities as this is such a vital part of our business, even more so in these challenging times. We are always looking for talented producers to work with; that is something that won’t change.

If someone’s looking to make a pitch to you, what should they NOT do?

Lie. Plain and simple. Don’t tell me that a network has made an offer when they actually passed or that a piece of talent is interested when you haven’t even contacted them yet. It is the only thing that really bothers me in the pitching process.

Diane Rankin, head of acquisitions, Cineflix International, London

What have been some recent acquisitions of note, and what’s been doing quite well for you over the course of the year?

We’ve just taken on My Monkey Baby, a one-off ob doc from the UK that we think is going to do extremely well, and Psychic Academy, a finished series and format that is essentially the paranormal Apprentice. We’re also just about to close on a really fresh ad-funded project and a new ob doc series, which is a genre that always performs well for us.

As you head to MIPCOM this year, is there anything in particular you’re keeping your eye out for? Conversely, what aren’t you looking for this time around?

We’re definitely looking for series as volume is really important to our strategy of focusing on core series with event one-offs to support the catalog. Really exciting one-offs will sell well, so you can never rule those out. We’re open to most factual genres, but I will be keeping my eye out for series with format potential, crime, popular science and observational docs with strong characters.

Has there been room to think creatively in terms of acquisitions in this time of economic flux?

It has opened up a lot of opportunities for companies like ours to use our resources to build new relationships with top talent and bring new producers on board. Deals can be structured more creatively and the business is not only open to new models, it’s crying out for them. Producers are bringing in a distributor at a much earlier stage as they have bigger deficits and need help to get projects off the ground.

Any other trends that you’ve noticed over the course of the year?

Shows that can hit both audiences, pre- and post- watershed are even more in demand. And volume is now an even bigger USP than before – it works in a risk-averse economic climate.

Lastly, you’re a Cannes veteran. Where’s your favorite place to talk shop (and presumably have a good meal) while there?

In my past I was a floor walker, so I did a lot more moving around going to meetings. Now I have my own space at the Cineflix International booth and, I have to say that I actually really enjoy having meetings there – there’s great buzz and I’m always guaranteed a seat! If we’re talking food, Da Laura and Pastis are always good choices.

Niki Page, acquisitions manager, Channel Four International (c4i), a Digital Rights Group company

What is C4i looking for currently in terms of factual? Are any genres, subjects or styles of programming leading the pack?

We’re looking for high-end, blue-chip factual one-off specials and series, particularly on internationally appealing science and history subjects as we have had great success with these in the past and have successfully brokered coproduction and pre-sale deals. We’re also looking for documentaries, factual entertainment shows and current affairs singles and series that will engage with a global audience.

What have been some of your better performing acquisitions from the past year?

Time Team is a very strong and important brand to C4i and always performs very well internationally. Afghan Star, produced by Roast Beef Productions & Kaboora Productions has been an enormous success internationally and also won two awards at the Sundance Festival (best director for a documentary and the People’s Choice award).

How has the economic turbulence of the past year impacted you, particularly C4i’s ability to develop and finance projects? Do you need to be much choosier in terms of getting value for money?

There has been a lack of programs being commissioned which has meant there has been stiff competition to acquire the international rights to less content. We do co-fund some development in conjunction with broadcasters so that pilots and/or promos can be produced.

Are you looking primarily for content from UK producers? Is there a ratio between content you buy from UK producers and the rest of the world?

Most of our content does come from UK independent producers but we do work with international companies as well. We’re actively seeking strong ideas from all over the world.

Have there been any emerging trends you’ve noticed in terms of content you’ve been buying this year?

There have been a number of cookery and ‘feel good’ programs, which always sell well. However, there has been a lack of big history, science and current affairs projects. Buyers are still seeking these genres so we are very keen to acquire more.

Lastly, what’s your favorite ‘hidden gem’ restaurant in Cannes?

There are so many! Le Mesclun on Rue St. Antoine in the old town is lovely.

Nat Abraham, head of distribution, Breakthrough Entertainment, Toronto

What distribution rights for factual have you picked up over the course of the past year?

We represent some pretty strong producers – David Rocco’s La Dolce Vita [Rockhead Productions] is probably our biggest, most recent acquisition on the lifestyle side. We’ve got Famous Crime Stories and Re-inventors that we picked up from Partners in Motion and both of those do very well for us around the world.

Anything in particular that you’re looking for?

We’re a very broad-based company – we’re very strong in kids, lifestyle and factual, so for us it’s a broad slate. I wouldn’t say we’d pigeonhole ourselves in any genre.

You handle a lot of HD content, and have had success with programs incorporating CGI…

Let’s face it, we’re in a flatscreen plasma world now. Things have to deliver on the visual front; otherwise people tune out. So, for example, in this world, I don’t think archival footage works that well unless it’s been remastered. If someone has spent $3,000 on a flatscreen, they don’t want to see something that looks like ‘old TV.’ So from that standpoint technology has driven the change to a certain extent. A big one that we did for Discovery International was Greatest Tank Battles [coproduced by Breakthrough Films and Television, History Television Canada and Discovery], where we recreated some of the biggest battles with the viewers having a point of view within the tank where they could see what the veterans saw. Now it’s become ‘experience TV’ – when there are so many distractions like computers and video games taking time away from the set, you have to compete in that vein as well and make sure it engages people as opposed to just being a passive sort of entertainment.

You’re a Cannes veteran – what do you look the most forward to upon arriving?

When you deal with your buyers around the world on email and phone, one of the things we look forward to is being able to actually see them and have a glass of wine with them. It’s a matter of getting that personal touch, which I think is key, and that’s what the markets do for you.

Karrie Wolfe, senior vice president, RDF USA, Los Angeles

What are you looking for in terms of unscripted at this upcoming market?

As with the last market, I’ll be most interested in shows with a loud, fun premise that are viewable by an entire family sitting around the TV. Also, I’ll be looking for shows that are inspirational without being too earnest. All of these formats must be either primetime formats or those with big ratings in their respective territories. We need these to help sell the formats into the U.S. Lastly, I’m on the lookout for big loud characters – those who are experts in their fields and have a really unique perspective and personality.

What are some recent successful unscripted acquisitions you’ve picked up?

We are currently in production on six episodes of Find My Family for ABC. When we optioned this, it had been on the air in Holland for 18 years. The subjects of the show are all trying to find loved ones with whom they’ve lost contact, and it’s very touching.

Has the global economy impacted the content you’ve been seeing over the past year in terms of subject matter or tone?

There were always financial coaching shows before the economy crumbled, as there was always debt. But I do know of a few shows in production in the U.S., UK and other key markets that will be tackling the subject of unemployment whether through traditional docs or more formatted ob docs.

Have U.S. broadcasters become a little pickier when it comes to foreign formats?

U.S. broadcasters are pickier in general. Whether it be a well-known talent or an international ratings history, there has to be an element to the show that makes the execs feel they have to have it. International formats still pique the interests of U.S. buyers though. When you look at the successful non-scripted formats on U.S. broadcast networks, about half are imported formats.

Lastly, if we spot you standing at the bar of The Grand, what can we buy you?

Hey – if you’re buying, I’m not going to be picky. Especially if I don’t have to spend the insane amount of money the bartenders always end up charging me there!

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.