Looking forward: The NPA’s John Ford

The general manager of the Non-Fiction Producers Association talks to realscreen about the trade association's first 18 months, and gives his perspective on the challenges and opportunities currently facing the unscripted production industry.
February 9, 2016

Having held senior executive positions at National Geographic Channel and Discovery Networks (including a two-year stint as president and GM of Discovery Channel) over the course of his career, John Ford, general manager of the 18-month-old Non-Fiction Producers Association, knows a fair bit about the producer-network dynamic, and the challenges facing both teams.

Ford, also currently serving as head of programming at Justice Network, has headed up the association – comprised of 38 member companies from across the United States, including such unscripted heavyweights as all3media, Bunim/Murray Productions, ITV America, Leftfield Entertainment, and Half Yard Productions – since July. The post has given him insight into his membership’s concerns over the changes currently impacting the industry, as well as the opportunity to present those concerns to network partners in order to facilitate best practices and smoother relationships between buyer and seller.

“One of the things that an association can do is step back, take an industry view, take that view to the network and production management and business affairs people, and try to make some progress,” Ford told realscreen in an interview during a break in the action at the recent Realscreen Summit. “It’s not a contentious thing, it’s more about sitting down and hammering away at issues that affect both of us negatively.”

Specifically, Ford cites what’s seen as “a little bit of chipping away” at producers’ fees and reduction in series volume – “You might have got 10 episodes before, now you might get eight, or six,” he explains – as current concerns of the membership, but he also takes care to frame them as part of what was a transitional year for every sector of the unscripted content industry.

Challenges aside, Ford is also quick to point to the health of the unscripted TV business, as reflected in a recent study conducted with consulting firm Mishkin Associates, which billed unscripted programming in the U.S. as a US$3.9 billion industry. Other recent surveys conducted by the NPA across its membership depict the rapid growth of the industry in recent years, and in turn, that growth’s impact on the production community, as represented by the NPA. (Click the link below to see the assorted survey results.)

NPA Profile – 4-Slide Stats

The surveys, covering the five-year period between 2010 to 2014, reflect an industry that has virtually exploded, with the average number of hours produced by member companies annually rising from 65 in 2010 to 97 in 2014, and mean company revenues rising from $24 million in 2010 to $41 million in 2014.

Through the survey process, the NPA has also examined the health of the unscripted business in the U.S. through the lens of average hourly wages, and the ratio of freelance workers to full-time workers. Wages can run the gamut from $17.46 per hour for production assistants, to $54.63 hourly for a producer, to a peak of $102.50 per hour for a co-EP.

The ratio of full-time employees to freelancers, meanwhile, stands at approximately 5:1, according to the NPA survey.

“On the labor front, one of the things we found in our survey is that production revenues grew by about 170% over that five year period, while labor costs went up 178%,” adds Ford. “So labor, as a line item, has been going up faster than overall revenues, which I think stands to reason if you look at it anecdotally.

“We encourage our members to provide opportunities for growth, training programs – so if someone goes in as an assistant editor they can see a path to becoming an editor. That’s important to the success of a company. Another thing is that our companies are pretty young. If you look at the number of hours produced over that five-year period, it’s an industry that’s grown very big, very fast. So people have had to get more sophisticated about how they operate their shops in a very quick time, while they’re growing their businesses, and that’s difficult.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
What else are you hearing from your membership about the challenges it has faced over the past year?
One thing that people are reporting back is that network executives don’t seem to have as much confidence in commissioning as they did, say, three or four years ago. That speaks directly to how difficult it is to mount a hit these days, because there’s so much competition for viewers’ attention compared to what there was five years ago. It’s not unlike what broadcasters were experiencing in the 1990s, when cable was going through its exponential growth. That phase scared the heck out of broadcasters because suddenly the definition of a hit was different, and I think that’s changing now for cable.

The big trend towards consumers being able to avoid commercials is very much on people’s minds. A lot of what we’re seeing – when you see someone migrating from watching TV on cable to watching TV on Netflix – not only are they able to watch different content, they can watch content that doesn’t have commercials there… But the bulk of the cable business is still depending on forcing people to watch commercials in order to get the programs. As that changes, you wind up with a huge groundswell in the industry that everyone has to deal with.

That’s something that our producers are thinking about as they start to tailor their content to add in the kind of blended service, where I’m not offering to you – the consumer – a product I can sell to advertisers. I’m offering you the TV program. You’re buying it from the network and me, Amazon Prime and me, whomever. As the reins of control shift – not entirely but substantially – you’ll have a different kind of content. Is it good or bad? No, it’s neither – it’s just different.

The caution in development is a challenge. The money put out for development being a lot less than development costs, inefficient processes… One of the things about our industry which I know about from being in the network side and which has always befuddled me is how our business contracting is pretty primitive. You do a contract every time you do a program and sometimes at the start you’re doing it from scratch. We’re encouraging both our members and our network partners to see if we can revisit that and make the contracting procedure a lot smoother. The way I put it is “taking the sand out of the gears” of development, contracting and production. There are a lot of elements in there that you don’t need to revisit every time you do a contract.

There is fault on both sides – producers and networks – but together if we can sit down and iron out some of those things to make them quicker, what will happen is the network will get its program on the air when it wants it there, as opposed to three months later. As a former network commissioner, I know that when I want a program on my air in May, I want it in May for a reason, not August. And if it gets slowed down in development and contracting hell because of some kink in the business affairs system, that doesn’t serve me or the producer. So we’re working together with networks to try to iron those things out and I think that can help.

How do you think your members and network partners see the role of the NPA?
With our members, as they started getting into conversations with each other, they found they could benefit most from sharing business insights and practices. If you look at your average non-fiction producer or head of a company, it’s head down, developing, producing, pitching all the time. Production can be chaotic, it’s always urgent and you’re putting out fires all the time. What the Association does for people is give them a place to go and step back, talk to people who have those shared experiences, and learn from one another about how to improve what they’re doing. That’s what we’re seeing as the primary benefit.

What we’ve tried to do in talking to networks, and we’ve sat down with most of the major groups, is to say we are about helping them help themselves. So help us to do that – sit down and talk with us about what’s going on in the business… We’re looking for win-wins.

Change is a constant and we just want to make sure our members are equipped to handle the changes as best as possible. We have a pretty bright, progressive group and I think they’re going to handle change really well.

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