One-off or Return Fare?

When RealScreen's Factual Price Guide survey queried readers about whether series or single programs are currently selling better, the majority answered with a resounding 'It depends.'
March 1, 2003

When RealScreen‘s Factual Price Guide survey queried readers about whether series or single programs are currently selling better, the majority answered with a resounding ‘It depends.’

‘They are about as popular as each other, depending on the genre,’ answered one participant. Indeed, a few genre trends did emerge. Documentaries dealing with current affairs, political, social and economic subjects are in higher demand as single programs, no doubt because these topics are highly volatile and need to be timely. Inversely, evergreen topics such as wildlife, travel and lifestyle are sought after as series.

The complexity of a subject can also create demand for multiple episodes. Says Maria Rezola Murua, director of Documania, an all-doc cable and satellite channel in Madrid, Spain, ‘For science, wildlife or history, we look more for series, because one hour is often not enough time to explain what you’re talking about. Art and culture,’ she continues, ‘those are better as one-hours.’

Yet, as influential as genre is in determining the length of a program, it is secondary to the market tier being targeted. Says Bettina Oebel, manager of international doc sales for German United Distributors in Cologne, ‘Cable channels or digital channels with specialized programming tend to prefer series, whereas the terrestrial broadcasters, especially in Europe, go for one-offs or mini-series at the maximum.’ (Mini-series, Oebel explains, are three to six episodes by one-hour.)

‘For specialty [cable], the mainstay is always series,’ agrees Norm Bolen, executive VP of programming for Toronto, Canada-based Alliance Atlantis Broadcasting. Bolen oversees programming for the group’s various niche channels such as HGTV Canada, Food Network Canada, History Television and Life Network. ‘Audiences come to specialty because they like a specific genre, they don’t come to an individual program as much as they do on conventional channels, where you have appointment viewing,’ he continues.

AAC also likes to strip programming – where a show runs in the same slot five days a week – to create demand for long-running series. ‘It’s easier for us to attract people that way,’ says Bolen. He notes that series with 50 to 65 episodes are ideal for stripping, with most running 30 minutes per show. ‘You want to have as much fresh programming for as long as possible, then rest it for a while, then play it again,’ he adds.

Oebel, who oversees sales to North America, Latin America, the Middle East and Europe’s non-German-speaking territories, says this approach echoes around the world. She notes that in recent years, small niche channels have been demanding longer license periods – a change she attributes to the increasingly competitive marketplace. ‘They even go for an unlimited number of runs to save money,’ Oebel continues. ‘Some also ask for the right to sublicense to try to recoup costs. Many more ask for their specific language versions, which wasn’t common before.’

Another trend, says Bolen, is an increased emphasis on limited series, ‘landmark series that you can really blow your brains out marketing.’ He explains: ‘You use them to attract new viewers to your channel and then you cross-promote other shows the audience might not be aware of.’

As noted earlier, terrestrial channels are also interested in limited series, although one-hour one-offs remain their first choice. Still, longer series should not be discounted altogether, says Gary Lico, president of Stamford, U.S.-based distrib Cableready. ‘Series have been the foundation of any channel, whether terrestrial or cable. You’ve got to get people tuning in on a regular basis and series are the only way to do that.’ His advice to producers? ‘Create a one-off that has the potential of becoming a series.’

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.