People/Biz

“You feel like you must watch it”: What makes content “premium”

It’s been the big buzzword for a few years now, but as more networks engage in what’s been called the “content arms race,” the definition of what makes programming “premium” ...
April 22, 2019

It’s been the big buzzword for a few years now, but as more networks engage in what’s been called the “content arms race,” the definition of what makes programming “premium” is evolving. Here, producers and network execs expound on what premium is (prestige content) and what it might not always need to be (pricey).

The arrival of Netflix’s Tidying Up with Marie Kondo (pictured) earlier this year, and its subsequent success, has been an eye-opener for viewers, and for industry execs alike. Here was a home improvement show in which the host, Kondo, encouraged participants to look inward as they considered their belongings, and to ask themselves if the stuff they’d accumulated in their homes “sparked joy.” She didn’t replace those belongings, or provide lavish home renovations to store what was left. Instead she offered helpful tips and left participants to do the work of improving their lives through the art of “decluttering.”

It was a rather radical concept in its simplicity. Kondo didn’t devalue material belongings, but neither did she offer any more of them. Perhaps befitting the show’s premise and its host, Tidying Up didn’t come cluttered up with major production flourishes and yet it was undeniably a major cultural event. Whether you’re a Kondo acolyte or not, Tidying Up is textbook watercooler viewing and has tapped into the zeitgeist. It can be considered for its broadcaster, one must assume, as prestige unscripted programming.

But it also challenges the industry definition of those terms. In an increasingly crowded unscripted space, with traditional broadcasters and cable nets competing with VODs to keep their slice of the pie, it’s easy for all the players in the puzzle to throw terms such as “premium” around to curry favor with networks, distributors and viewers.

Everyone wants the next Wild Wild Country, Planet Earth or The Jinx. But what ties such titles together? What really makes them premium unscripted series?

PUNK

Epix’s Punk puts a premium spin on the history of the punk movement.

Hend Baghdady, executive producer of Tidying Up and SVP of production and alternative programming at the Jackal Group, doesn’t think an enormous budget is necessary for an unscripted program to qualify as premium, though she acknowledges that money helps. Rather, the “premium” label reflects something unique, or something new.

“When you look at some of the docs that Nat Geo is doing, or Cosmos, obviously those are very clearly premium. They’re very expensive shows,” she tells Realscreen.

But Tidying Up went premium in different ways. “We made very deliberate decisions from the beginning to elevate the series,” she adds. “It wasn’t about bringing in the most expensive cameras.” Instead, the producers worked to hone in on its inherently unique elements, even as it followed certain format conventions.

“There are a lot of Japanese elements in the show. Some more obvious than others,” she says. “In Japan, and especially in Japanese anime and a lot of their cultural storytelling, the space itself plays as a character, and so we decided very early on that because this is a show about your space, and your relationship with the space and how that affects your spiritual well-being, we were going to treat the space as a character. You’ll notice, if you watch the show, that a lot of it plays in these very long wides. It’s not a ‘cutty’ show. That is something that costs us nothing.”

Of course, the show also tapped into a national and international movement towards minimalism.

Beyond a sense of originality, what can contribute to a program’s premium status? Other execs point not only to the importance of relevance, but specifically, to the sense of event viewing.

“I think the ‘eventized’ nature of programming is what drives eyeballs,” Rachel Brill (pictured, below), head of unscripted programming at premium cable network Epix, tells Realscreen. That means formats don’t generally fit the premium bill, since they function on the premise of reproducibility. “To do premium, you’re likely not doing high volume, and you’re carefully curating every single project, because there’s a passionate audience that is well defined,” she adds.

Rachel Brill

While Baghdady sees plenty of room to do that on a budget, Brill argues that premium content comes with a premium price tag. “You need to pay for the level of quality that premium is predicated on, in terms of Epix’s expectations. And our expectations are that our unscripted or non-fiction narratives are going to sit well with our scripted dramas.”

Whether it’s a one-night event, or a three-week event, you feel like you must watch it, and that it’s only going to be there for a limited time.

Talos Films co-president and co-founder Julian Hobbs (pictured, below) agrees that premium content is both expensive and designed as an event. “You tend to pay more for premium events,” he tells Realscreen. “That’s not always true, but generally you pay more. It’s at a price point that the network almost can’t afford to have appear every week.”

Hobbs, Julian

It’s tricky to pin down, but the belief that premium projects are “can’t miss” recurs. “Putting any constraints around ‘premium’ may be a mistake, but I do think it has one defining trait, which is that… it’s a limited-run series. It’s an event. Whether it’s a one-night event, or a three-week event, you feel like you must watch it, and that it’s only going to be there for a limited time,” says Hobbs, a former programming exec at History.

And while the added expense can be aimed at higher production value, it can also be leveraged to promote a premium product, especially if that’s a short-term push for something that won’t be coming back season after season. “You can maximize your ad revenue. You can maximize your PR push. You can maximize your press push,” says Hobbs.

All of this should foster brand engagement, he adds: “If it’s done right, it’s hugely brand-enhancing.” Hobbs’ focus on brand also opens up the definition of “premium” to networks and projects that might not be immediately considered as such. “I’ve coined this term, ‘populist premium,’” he says. “You can have a big, noisy event that’s on brand, that’s informational and entertaining, and… award winning. All of that can come together if people want to lean into their core brand.”

If that doesn’t offer a clear-cut definition or help you come up with the next buzz-worthy unscripted event, that’s probably because there is no premium silver bullet. There’s no one-size-fits-all model. A relatively inexpensive project such as Tidying Up or Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly might spark collective joy — or long overdue discussions with deep cultural resonance. Either can have a profound impact for their broadcasters.

Then again, an expensive, brand-affirming project such as BBC’s upcoming, and sure to be lavish, natural history docuseries One Planet: Seven Worlds is a near certain home run. It appears that, when playing in the premium sandbox, there’s plenty of wiggle room.

This story first appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of Realscreen Magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.

About The Author
Senior staff writer Frederick Blichert comes to realscreen with a background as a journalist and freelance film critic. He has previously written for VICE, Paste Magazine, Senses of Cinema, Xtra, Canadian Cinematographer and elsewhere. He holds a Master of Arts in film studies from Carleton University and a Master of Journalism from the University of British Columbia.