Mutual back-scratching, and all it entails

In the months leading up to the RealScreen Summit, we've been asking the event's supporters to stir the pot on issues sure to rile up delegates. As the conference gets underway, BRIAN DONEGAN, chairperson for day one, gets his two cents...
February 1, 1999

In the months leading up to the RealScreen Summit, we’ve been asking the event’s supporters to stir the pot on issues sure to rile up delegates. As the conference gets underway, BRIAN DONEGAN, chairperson for day one, gets his two cents in

Recently, I was enjoying an episode from Howard and Michelle Hall’s Secrets of the Ocean Realm, in which barberfish darted around the great jaws of a mighty shark, dutifully nibbling away parasites. The shark was careful not to hurt the little fish, as they were providing a valuable service. In exchange, the barberfish earned a meal. In nature, this is called a symbiotic relationship, where ‘two dissimilar organisms live together in close union for mutual benefit.’ In an odd flash, it struck me that the relationship between the barberfish and the shark is much like that between the producers and broadcasters.

No, I’m not trying to describe the non-fiction broadcasters as bloodthirsty predators – it’s more a comparison of scale, given the independents’ comparative vulnerability and the broadcasters’ substantial might. Yet, despite their size and strength, most broadcasters are totally reliant on independent producers for programming. Without this healthy, symbiotic relationship, program schedules would become sickly and the documentary community would soon go belly-up.

Nearly 20 years ago, Ron Devillier and I left our jobs as programmers and buyers to set up a non-fiction tv distribution company. We believed producers needed help identifying and seizing opportunities in the growing cable, broadcast and international television markets. In the ’90s, we’ve been able to significantly increase our financial commitment to produce original programs. We’ve participated in the evolution of this symbiotic relationship and our company has changed and grown, but one thing remains constant. We must meet the expectations of both partners: the producer, who brought us the concept and who looks to nurture and protect it; and the broadcaster, who puts up the significant money and expects to call all the shots. Successful symbiosis requires that the partners have genuine appreciation for each other’s needs. But it isn’t easy. There are many contentious issues in the increasingly complex world of global communications.

Doing the deal has become more complicated in recent years. Many broadcasters have successfully established worldwide reach, and now insist on a broad package of rights. Producers, who rarely fund an entire project out of one territory, often look to the same rights to help shore up their anemic budgets. As a result, negotiations can be long and sometimes strained, but the vision of an exciting story and the parties’ bottom line usually drive the negotiations to a successful conclusion.

Making the show has also become more challenging. Broadcasters’ escalating desire for editorial control and ancillary materials can place additional strain on tight budgets. Broadcasters often fail to appreciate the costs associated with their desires. Demands for ‘rush’ promotional materials and additional deliverables can be expensive. Editorial delays can tax even the patience of Job. It is usually the crucible of post-production where the respect between the parties is most severely tested, despite the fact everyone is, in reality, working for the same goal – a fact occasionally forgotten.

As we dive into the RealScreen Summit, perhaps it’s worth remembering that we’re all part of the same community. Producers, broadcasters, writers, cinematographers, financiers, and distributors – we all need each other to succeed. The conference will not end fights over budgets, rights and editorial control, but I believe the health of this symbiotic community is strengthened as each partner listens and tried to understand what the other needs to thrive. After all, big fish or little fish, we’re all necessary to getting the job done.

Brian Donegan is executive vice president of Washington, D.C.-based Devillier Donegan Enterprises

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.