Penguin TV looks to book titles for inspiration

As if shepherding a production through to airdate while juggling the scheduling needs of assorted broadcasters and producers isn't enough of a cat-herding exercise, Penguin Television plans to go a step or two further.
November 1, 2003

As if shepherding a production through to airdate while juggling the scheduling needs of assorted broadcasters and producers isn’t enough of a cat-herding exercise, Penguin Television plans to go a step or two further. The newbie London-based kids and factual production and distrib entity, spun out of Pearson’s Broadband Television Group, will be mining sister company the Penguin Group’s book titles for its TV slate (thereby adding authors to the group of players to keep happy). The ultimate goal is to develop programs and books that can be launched simultaneously.

Pearson Broadband’s tv group operations have folded into the Penguin TV division, essentially rebranded as Penguin Television with the TV group’s back catalog and expertise unchanged.

Sharing the orange penguin icon signals Penguin TV’s intent to source program ideas from Penguin imprints, including Dorling Kindersley (known for its adult and children’s reference titles). Penguin TV president John Hollar says there is also an opportunity for original TV projects to cross over into print.

Elaborating on the ‘flow of ideas’ synergy driving the new unit, Hollar explains that Penguin TV, serving as exec producers, ‘can bring TV ideas into the publishing realm’ and that the resources on the publishing side can also be tapped for research to support production efforts.

Hollar advises that producers should approach Penguin with ideas that are big enough to merit this approach, such as multiple-episode kids series and multipart documentaries that are as global as possible. Hollar, a PBS vet who founded Pearson Broadband in 2000, met with many major U.K. and U.S. factual companies at MIPCOM (October 10 to 14 in Cannes).

Hollar isn’t worried about coordinating program and book launches among different broadcasters and territories. Considering the cross-promotional value of having a book launch to tie into, he explains, ‘broadcasters will wait so that it can all come together.’ However, due to the coordination-intensive nature of the projects, Hollar anticipates a longer lead time will be required.

As to the impact on the publishing side’s bottom line, Hollar says, ‘If we could get a 10% lift in book sales, that would be a great success.’

One mammoth upcoming project on the print side that Hollar is simultaneously developing for TV is a 50-book U.S. history series. The Penguin History of American Life is a decade-long publishing venture being undertaken by the new Pearson imprint Penguin Press. A board of historians, headed by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., will develop the individual themes and titles. For his part, Hollar is working to turn the History book series into a long-term doc series. ‘My instinct is that we will work with multiple producers, but would like a single broadcast/ coproduction partner.’

Since the company just launched in late September, the production slate is based on existing Penguin imprint titles. Currently, Penguin TV has 30 hours in the works, including 1421, a two-hour doc based on Gavin Menzies’ book 1421: the Year China Discovered the World, which explores whether the Chinese may have beaten Columbus to America. In production in London and on location in China with London-based Paladin Invision for PBS, the historical mystery is slated to air next year.

Documentary series currently in development that spring from Dorling Kindersley titles include Destination America, a history of U.S. immigration produced by New York-based David Grubin Productions; and The Essential Shakespeare, a coproduction with London-based Shine Entertainment that puts the Bard’s works in historical context and features famous filmmakers’ modern-day takes on the plays.

As to how he sees the company growing, Hollar says the goal is ‘a very high output in factual and kids’, which he pegs at 150 to 200 hours per year, with an anticipated budget range of US$300,000 to $600,000 per primetime hour. Key executives for Penguin TV in London include executive vp Eric Jones, director of tv Simon Jollands and head of sales Anne Magnol. In the U.S., Carlos Alcazar takes care of strategic ventures and new business.

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