A “Working with ‘The New Normal’” panel at the Realscreen Summit asked if “derivative” was a dirty word, confirmed the crucial nature of network-producer bonds and explored the Netflix true-crime series, Making a Murderer.
Moderator Phil Fairclough, managing director of EarthTouch USA, was back in action serving panelists with his trademark cocktails and was quick to roll a trailer for the controversial series on jailed Wisconsin man Steven Avery. Nancy Daniels, president and GM of TLC and Discovery Life Channel, said she binged on the Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos-directed series, but pointed out that it’s hard to think of the program as an unscripted commissioner because it was a labor of love that took 10 years to film – a challenging timeframe for cable television.
SallyAnn Salsano of 495 Productions noted that, on paper, the concept for the 10-part series – which bowed on Netflix in December – sounds “flat-line” but she watched it all in one sitting.
“I think it’s that type of thing where you have to see it to believe it,” said the Jersey Shore creator.”At [Investigation Discovery], they’re obsessed with that style of programming and I think there are great stories there but sometimes, when you think about a one-sentence pitch, [you think] what’s so special about that?”
Salsano maintained, however, that producers and networks shouldn’t be afraid of simple ideas – “because those are what works” – and should also stop using the word “derivative,” a word that’s “crippling every single person in this room.
“The word is ‘sweet spot.’ Stop saying ‘derivative,’” said Salsano.
Fairclough later argued that the big reality hits are often derivative in nature, with Kathleen Finch, chief programming, brand and content officer for Scripps Networks Interactive, showing her support.
“I would agree,” said the exec, who used the example of Food Network’s Chopped Junior. “If viewers like it, why not make a clone of that? I think making derivatives, when you have figured out who your audience is, super-serving them that content is a winning game. Especially because the repeat business has gotten so much softer.”
With Chopped Junior, Finch explained that Scripps is trying to pursue family viewing and build a future generation of Chopped fans. She allowed that she would call the program derivative, but added that it’s more of a “different group” of a hit show.
Risk-taking and the difficulty of letting shows germinate on the schedule was also up for discussion among the panelists. But while Finch said it was difficult from a business perspective to take risks and work with unknown production entities, TLC’s Daniels said more unusual projects do get in the door sometimes, giving the example of the Lighthearted Entertainment-made Labor Games.
Though the show – which found couples on the cusp of delivering their babies playing games in their hospital room to win prize money for their unborn child – didn’t return for another season, Daniels acknowledged the risk behind the greenlight.
“The hardest thing about taking risks that are outside of your wheelhouse is where you put it on your schedule, how do you get attention around it, how do you build an audience and have the patience to build it,” said the exec, explaining that TLC ultimately couldn’t find the audience to grow for Labor Games.
“If it was a different day and age, we’d have lit up 40 of these and stripped them,” she added.
Brent Montgomery, newly minted CEO of ITV America, later pointed to Discovery Channel’s true-crime series Killing Fields as a recent success, noting that a clip of the Sirens Media-produced show – which follows in real-time a Louisiana detective who re-opens a case from 1997 – was pitched to Discovery at the Realscreen Summit last year, and went straight to series.
When Finch was asked if she similarly goes straight to series for any of the Scripps brands, the exec said she would – but only as long as it was coming from a trusted producer. The conversation confirmed the importance of forming strong partnerships in the industry: a concept echoed by United Talent Agency agent Geoffrey Suddleson.
“When I’m talking to an established client, literally every conversation starts with, ‘The best chance to have a sale is with…,” he said, adding that he always advises clients to be more strategic about who they partner with for a project.
Fairclough then asked Suddleson what he says to producers representing digital platforms.
“These are becoming real viable places to sell content,” said the agent, adding that he had done business with Amazon, Fullscreen and Red Bull.
“We’re still at a place where – in the non-fiction space – a production company’s livelihood and survival for the large part is based on volume and if you can add those platforms in addition to the volume you’re doing in more traditional spaces, then why not?”
(Photo by Rahoul Ghose)