Doc opportunities are on the rise as Spanish broadcasters develop a taste for infotainment

In comparison to most other European countries, Spain has not had much in the way of a...
January 1, 2000

In comparison to most other European countries, Spain has not had much in the way of a

doc culture – but that is changing. Factual programming is becoming increasingly popular with both broadcasters and viewers, and while it has just begun making inroads on the commercial outlets, non-fiction has already become a primary feature on the digital satellite platforms.

On the Earth

Currently, only two terrestrial channels (La 2 and Canal+) dedicate large parts of their schedules to docs and have departments for acquisitions, coproductions and in-house documentary programs. As for the remaining terrestrials – state-owned La Primera, and private broadcasters Antena 3 TV and Tele 5 – only La Primera, (the market broadcast leader), recently opened a window during Tuesday primetime that sometimes airs factual programming.

For the most part, docs are conspicuous by their absence on commercial terrestrial television. The telco Telefonica-controlled Antena 3 TV and Berlusconi-Kirch-Correo-owned Tele 5, rarely show any documentaries, regarding them as ‘unprofitable’ and ‘uninteresting.’ Despite this, in an unprecedented move Tele 5 recently acquired rights to the BBC’s landmark series Walking with Dinosaurs, and will air it this spring. ‘This is not our specialty,’ said Ghislain Barrois, chief of acquisitions at Tele 5, ‘but we’re betting on it strongly, because it is a unique documentary with an incredible technical quality.’

Docs do have a presence on the regional channels ETB1 and ETB2, Telemadrid, Canal 9 and N9, Canal Sur and Canal 2 Andalucia, TV3 and Canal 33, as well as TVG. On these outlets, docs have been very successful, to the extent that a TV3 in-house production called Circo, Circulo de Emociones (Circus, Circle of Emotions) was nominated for an Emmy.

State-owned outlets

La 2, the second state-owned national channel (which, along with sister-station and current market leader La Primera, is managed by the RTVE group), has an average audience share of 8%, and has become a prolific window for documentaries. It has a slot dedicated to docs, Grandes Documentales (Great Docs), which runs Monday to Friday from 3:45 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. The slot captures a 10% market share, higher than average for the channel. Most of the programs it offers are external productions, with a special emphasis on nature and the environment.

The channel also programs events, like ‘La Noche Tematica’ (‘Thematic Night’), every Friday at 10:30 p.m., in which two documentaries and a feature on a given topic are screened. La 2 also programs Documentos TV and Linea 900, current affairs shows which run every Sunday evening. It sometimes also programs docs independently in primetime (as does La Primera).

Demand for docs is growing to the extent that even La Primera has opened a window Tuesdays during primetime. Natural history docs have become so important that parent group RTVE has created Hisperica, a specific division dedicated to producing this genre in-house, using the BBC model as their example and taking aim at environmental topics.

Rafael Martinez Durban, director of documentaries at RTVE, explains that he wants to do more coproductions in the genre. ‘We are in talks with TV companies from different Latin American countries – Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, among them – to carry out coproduction projects about the Latin American and Spanish fauna, as well as environmental topics and rural tourism.’

La 2 or La Primera can participate in a coproduction project with a 50% maximum contribution, although they generally offer about 30%. They both currently have a number of nature docs in coproduction.

RTVE also acquires external productions, their most important connections being National Geographic, the BBC, Discovery, ITEL and HIT in the U.K., French Tele Images and some Australians, like Southern Star. On average, RTVE buys about 200 docs annually, paying between US$6,450 to $9,700 per hour. Carmen Sarabia, director of acquisitions at La Primera, claims ‘We are interested in all docs which reflect the relationship between human beings and nature, and in those about animal wildlife.’

Martinez Durban explains that a new doc series is being released by La 2 every two and a half months, about 80% of which are in-house (RTVE) productions, 25 minutes long, and between 9 and 13 episodes in length. ‘We use this format because it is easier to place it in the schedule,’ says Durban. ‘In addition, [by keeping them short] we avoid the doc being interrupted by advertising.’

RTVE’s most emblematic doc series is Al filo de lo Imposible (At the Impossible Edge), a high budget, in-house expedition series (around us$130,000 per episode) which follows the adventures of a team during expeditions to the most remote places in the world, such as the North Pole.

RTVE is developing 2.Mil (Two Thousand), a scientific series about the latest scientific discoveries and research. In addition, the group is working on several 8-minute docs, profiling Seville (southern Spain), Pirineos (northern Spain) and Galicia (north-western Spain). Also in preparation are docs on science, philosophy, and cultural events that marked a milestone in the twentieth century.

Canal+: Pay TV with a doc edge

Sogecable-owned Canal+ Spain dedicates about 4% of its programming to docs. It has a daily afternoon slot from 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. which repeats at 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. Every month, the channel offers one or two docs in evening primetime at 10:00 p.m., as well as 10 to 15 other new productions in other parts of the schedule. Most of the docs it offers are acquisitions (86%), followed by coproductions (8%) and in-house productions (6%). Canal+ usually pays between us$5,000 to $8,000 per hour.

Overall, Canal+ acquires 100 to 120 titles per year for Spain on the international market, on the condition that all rights are exclusive to Spain for one year. Traditionally, it has worked with companies such as the BBC, National Geographic, Survival, ITEL and Explore International.

Canal+ broadcasts wildlife, science and others, which according to Carolina Gomez, who is responsible for docs acquisitions, ‘must have in common cutting-edge subjects, strong visual appeal, fast-paced narrative and minimum talking heads.’ As docs began to pull in a lot of viewers, Canal+ started offering them in primetime as of 1994. Over half obtained an audience share between 20% to 40%.

Among the selection criteria, the channel asks that docs are produced during the current or the previous year. It avoids series and prefers docs between 30 and 60 minutes, with some 90 minutes in the case of specials. Canal+ pre-buys in order to, according to Gomez, ‘ensure us the broadcasting rights for the best documentaries, which are programs with high production budgets and with strong marketing and promotional potential.’

In terms of coproductions, Canal+ studies projects on a case-by-case basis and prefers projects ‘close to a Spanish audience,’ says Gomez. Most, therefore, come from European producers. ‘When talking about coproductions,’ she cautions, ‘we want to have rights to export the docs to other markets in Latin America.’

In the Canal+ schedule, science and current affairs have a definite presence. The latter are offered under the show Codigo+, and are usually docs covering Spanish issues and, to a lesser degree, international subjects. History docs are not a favorite on Canal+.

About their competition: ‘The difference between our docs and RTVE’s,’ claims Gomez, ‘is that ours have a very high quality and a high cost. Every foreign company comes to see us first before offering its product to RTVE.’

Digital docs

Research from Spanish consultancy agency IBECOMP reveals that 65% of subscribers prefer factual over any other genre on the digital bouquet, making clear that docs can attract new subscribers. Documentary programming has therefore become a main feature on Spain’s two digital satellite platforms, Telefonica-led Via Digital (356,000 subscribers), and Canal Satellite Digital (780,000 subscribers), which is owned by Sogecable.

Canal Satellite includes three doc channels in its bouquet: Documania, Discovery Channel and Canal Viajar. There is another dedicated to science and technology called Canal C, which also offers other kinds of programs.

For its part, Via Digital offers Odisea, Hispavision, Cultura and Canal Natura.

Canal Satellite

Documania was the first Spanish doc channel on either cable or satellite specifically directed at a Spanish audience. Launched in 1993, it broadcasts a 24-hour slate comprised of natural history, the environment, science, social topics, culture, history, current affairs, adventure and entertainment. Its star slot (between 3:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m.) is reserved for the release of new docs. It has a specific slot devoted to adults, on Saturdays at 12:30 a.m., as well as a program dubbed Documania Junior for children, which runs every Saturday from 1:30 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.

Over the last six years, the broadcaster has programmed around 5,000 docs. About 95% are external productions, although according to director Maria Rezola, ‘this is to change in the future. We are going to strengthen coproductions and in-house productions in the short term.’ Currently, the channel has acquisition deals with National Geographic, HBO, BBC, WGBH, Survival, Warner, Disney/ABC, Docstar/Canal+ France. It pays around US$500 to $1,000 per hour.

Maria Rezola, the director of Documania, explains that no one genre prevails over another. ‘We try to dedicate blocks of programming to a particular topic to make people loyal to the channel.’ She sees domestic production quality increasing, and observes that ‘there are more and more windows dedicated to docs. Companies are now producing more docs than ever and that is because there is a market and a demand for them.’ Rezola says Documania is willing to coproduce with Spanish partners, but ‘entering into an international coproduction is very expensive.’ In any case, when choosing foreign docs, she prefers European products because ‘North American topics are very far from those in which Spaniards are interested.’

Discovery Channel, for its part, is trying to adapt itself to a Spanish audience, and now is dubbing its primetime programming (9:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.) into Spanish. The channel, which also reaches Portugal, offers a wide range of docs on science and technology, nature, adventure, art and culture. Around 85% of all its docs aired in primetime are Discovery product. Recently, the channel reached an agreement with the BBC to have annual access to about 52 hours of the BBC doc library.

Canal Viajar (Travel Channel) offers docs on travel topics: tourism, cities and culture. The schedule is broken down into thematic blocks. Each day all programming is dedicated to a particular subject (international destinations, art and culture, adventures, food, etc.). Each month, a different country is chosen as a focus.

Around 80% of all docs are external productions from international distributors, although most are European. The channel, which is three years old, has not done any coproductions, although it plans to enter into this market in the future. It pays around US$800 to $1,200 per hour for acquisitions.

For Leonardo Baltanas, director of Canal Viajar, ‘documentaries are on the rise, and people are demanding it more and more because they are fed up with other programming. Moreover, every day there are more and more Spanish and international production companies and this competition is obliging them to specialize in a particular genre.’

Via Digital

There are four doc channels on Via Digital: Odisea, Natura, Hispavision and Cultura. Odisea (managed by Multicanal TPS and also distributed via cable to Spain and Portugal), includes all doc genres: wildlife, social topics (Nuestro Mundo), anthropology (Culturas), science and technology, entertainment docs, adventure and sports. One of its star programs is PRISMA, which offers international acquisitions. The channel acquires mainly from European sources (around 80%, mainly from the U.K. and France, compared to 20% from U.S., Canada, Australia, Japan and Latin America). All its productions are 100% acquisitions with no coproductions. It pays around US$600 per hour.

The Odisea format gives preference to docs between 30 and 60 minutes and, to a lesser degree, 90 and 120 minutes. It also very frequently uses docs of between one and ten minutes around other programming.

Sonia Salas, director of Odisea, says that the only problem with docs in Spain is ‘the difficulties [involved in] financing and distributing them.’ Salas believes that the arrival of thematic channels has fostered the demand for doc programming.

Canal Natura is the first ecology channel in Spain. Owned by content provider Media Park, the channel offers docs, reports, films and interviews on environmental topics.

Another channel managed by Media Park and distributed by Via Digital is Cultura, which offer docs on history, art and nature in thematic blocks.

Hispavision, owned by RTVE, is centered on the Hispanic culture. It offers docs on art, history, geography and science, with special emphasis on the identity, idiosyncrasies and culture of Spanish-speaking countries. Through cable networks, it reaches 800,000 homes in Spain and Portugal, and has recently expanded with another doc channel called Canal de Historia (The History Channel) since December 1998. The channel, backed by A&E in the U.S., broadcasts 24-hour programming based on thematic blocks. It adds 400 new history docs every year. The channel works with the BBC, RTVE, Portuguese RTP, Italian RAI and German ZDF, and soon plans to enter into coproductions with other companies.

Channel director, Fatima Anllo, points out that the new channel has been welcomed by the Spaniards since its launch and says it has filled a gap. ‘I think nature docs are on decline in favor of other doc genres. We are offering a channel [to Spain] that has more than 10 million subscribers in the world.’


Who watches docs in Spain?

According to recent surveys, the Spanish viewers who watch the most docs are men aged 35 to 44, who tend to belong to a higher social class. These viewers are more likely to live in cities with a population between 50,000 and 200,000 inhabitants.

Women aged 16 to 24 living in cities of less than 10,000 inhabitants watch the least amount of docs. Main regions where docs are followed: Madrid (the capital of Spain), Galicia and Basque Country.


Who broadcasts the most factual?

A report made by EGDA (an entity that manages Spanish Audiovisual Producers rights) based on figures from Sofres (the leading Spanish rating company), reveals that in 1998, ETB1 was the channel that dedicated the most time to docs on a regional and national scale, amounting to 24% of all docs aired in Spain (with 1,789 programs from which 66.8% were Spanish productions).

La 2 was next, with 19.5% of all aired docs in 1998 (1,456 programs, 66.9% of them Spanish). Canal+ offered 536 docs, 25.4% of them were Spanish productions.

Overall, around 7,450 factual programs (260,792 minutes), were aired in 1998, of which nearly 55% were Spanish, 25.7% European and 12.3% North American. The favorite format was the half-hour.

Natural History, anthropology and adventure docs were the most widely watched and programmed. History, social topics and current affairs, science and technology, and medicine registered a lower audience rating, and were not a priority for Spanish broadcasters.

Overall, both on Canal+ and La 2, nature docs represent around 50% of all docs aired on each channel. Science, as an example of contrast, only amounted to 10% of the docs on Canal+.

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.