The columns and rows in the preceding charts expose the nitty-gritty dollars and cents of the documentary industry, but the numbers also reveal broader trends about where the business has been and where it might be going.
Perhaps most telling is the performance of format averages (meaning series or singles on a given platform) in 2003. In the past year, the voices crying out against the financial pinch have grown louder, apparently for good reason. In Australia, Germany and the U.S. – three of the five regions examined in the Factual Price Guide’s 2002 survey – most format averages fell compared to the previous year. The U.K. and France saw the majority of these figures rise, but in both countries only five of the nine numbers available for comparison increased – a slim margin indeed.
In February, RealScreen ran a special report that discussed the financial challenges facing doc-makers Down Under. This month, the Price Guide reveals fees dropped the most in Australia, decreasing by an average of 62%. The biggest dips appear for terrestrial 30-minute singles (an 86% decrease) and terrestrial 60-minute one-offs (a 79% drop).
Daryl Karp, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s head of factual programming, asserts that license fees for Australian produced programs and copros have held steady over the last few years, but admits the pubcaster is ‘paying significantly less to purchase programs. We’re also paying less in terms of putting up an acquisition as a pre-sale.’
Sue Lester, ABC’s network programmer, explains, ‘We’re putting more emphasis on Australian docs. We buy very few international documentaries, so we’re more competitive about what we choose and what we pay.’
Not surprisingly, the U.S. is still offering the highest average fee, with 60-minute terrestrial history series fetching US$500,000. Again this year, the margin between this and the next highest fee ($100,000) is substantial (80% higher). This appears in Canada for terrestrial 90-minute arts/music one-offs, in Germany for a 90-minute single for pay TV, in the U.K. for both history and reality 60-minute terrestrial series, and in France for 90-minute news/current affairs singles for terrestrial broadcasters.
It’s also worth noting that the U.S. has one of the lowest average fees: $300 per episode for 30-minute arts/music one-offs for cable TV. That is second only to the Canadian fee of US$175 for a 30-minute lifestyle/travel series, again for cable, prompting the question: Is anything that sells for so little worth producing?
For the most part, program genres remained stable over the last year. Wildlife and history again received the most responses, indicating demand for these subjects remains high. Both, however, followed the trend of falling fees. The inclusion this year of less lucrative territories such as Latin America, Scandinavia and Canada might have skewed the numbers. Or, perhaps it gives a more accurate picture. You be the judge. This year, history’s average fee for all countries is $39,350; last year it was $90,800. Wildlife/science earned an average fee of $18,750; last year it was $59,900 (wildlife was calculated with science to invite direct comparison to last year, when the two genres were combined).
Given the delicate imbalance of today’s world affairs, it’s curious (and slightly discouraging) that news/current affairs didn’t perform better. In Germany, for example, it dropped in rank (by number of responses) from 20% in 2002 to two percent in 2003. Perhaps not coincidentally, the two regions that had zero responses for reality programs this year – Japan and Latin America – rank news/current affairs the highest, the former at 14%, the latter at 28%.