Veni, Vidi, Vendor: Distribution roundtable

Distribution is a different discipline compared to a decade ago. Then, mid-level players dominated domestic markets, and were well woven into the local broadcasting and production fabric. Now, much of the volume in the industry is handled by large, multinational distributors that work with suppliers and broadcasters around the world. That new globalism comes with its own rewards and complexities. To get a better handle on where the
October 1, 2006

Distribution is a different discipline compared to a decade ago. Then, mid-level players dominated domestic markets, and were well woven into the local broadcasting and production fabric. Now, much of the volume in the industry is handled by large, multinational distributors that work with suppliers and broadcasters around the world. That new globalism comes with its own rewards and complexities. To get a better handle on where the non-fiction distribution market is now, realscreen sat down with five of its biggest players to learn more.

The panelists:

Mark Gray
VP, acquisition and development, Fremantle International Distribution

Bob Kennedy
EVP, worldwide sales, Alfred Haber Distribution

Tim Mutimer
Director of sales, Granada International

Stéphanie Röckmann-Portier
VP of sales, head of factual programs, international content distribution, Alliance Atlantis Communications

Caroline Torrance
Director of scripted programming and distribution, Endemol International

When it comes to distribution, it seems as though change is the only constant. What has been the biggest change you’ve seen in the industry over the past five years?
Gray: At the moment, the main challenge for us is the number of platforms and rights involved in a program – it’s no longer just TV and DVD – and that’s happened all over the world. Producers are careful about hanging onto rights across platforms: mobile; telephony; online; DTO; DTR – all these acronyms that are coming up. But broadcasters want to take as many of those rights as they can to complement their broadcast. It’s a real challenge balancing it all. Nobody’s quite sure how much any of these things are worth at the moment.
Torrance: Broadcasters come to us saying ‘We want all rights.’ I’ve started to see clauses come back into contracts that I haven’t seen for years. You used to do deals and people would ask for ‘rights in all media, now or forever invented in the future.’ Those kind of clauses have now started to creep back into contracts.
Gray: Are you getting those signed?
Torrance: No, absolutely not. I’m not agreeing to them at all, but those are the clauses broadcasters are trying to sneak in. They’re not sure what they want to do, or they’re not sure about the way things are going, so you get them saying ‘We want everything.’ It’s a challenge to do deals at the moment because no one’s really sure what’s around the corner.

So, how do you manage to hang on to rights and maintain a good relationship with broadcasters?
Torrance: We’re trying to limit rights as much as possible, or offer as few rights as possible, and only do deals on things that [broadcasters are] currently exploiting. They’re saying ‘Oh, we want VOD because in a year’s time we may be launching a VOD service.’ Or, ‘We want IPTV because in 18 months’ time we may be doing this.’ It’s a matter of doing deals on their business model as it currently exists.
Mutimer: We’re taking the same approach. We’re trying to segment rights as much as we possibly can, and making sure we’re only licensing the rights that people are actually in a position to exploit.
Alongside that, we’re doing a lot of work in analyzing the market and finding who the partners are that we should be working with going forward. Traditionally, there are a lot of people distributors haven’t dealt with who are now coming into the market. We’re starting to talk to ISPs, broadband providers and a lot of different types of companies to see what we can do. The great thing about factual programming is that there are lots of big brands, and [some content] that really reaches a niche audience. It really does bring life back to lots of the catalog that maybe wouldn’t have been suitable for linear channels at this stage.

Beyond rights, how else have emerging platforms affected the industry?
Mutimer: With all the cable satellite channels, you find there’s a home for lots of programming that maybe in the past didn’t travel as well to certain territories. Thinking about popular factual programming we have like Hell’s Kitchen and Nanny 911, we can now sell that into southern European countries that traditionally only took blue-chip wildlife.
I guess one of the challenges is that a lot of that blue-chip programming gets ghettoized. You’ve got National Geographic and Discovery with some really high-quality programming, which means it’s harder for some of the big terrestrial players to put [similar content] in primetime, because people will tend to go to places like Nat Geo now to watch it.
Röckmann-Portier: One of the other things I think has changed is that local production has gained so much importance almost everywhere. That has altered broadcaster expectations when they go to a distributor, because now we are competing with their own homemade shows, hence the expectations are bigger. We are there to provide them with shows they can’t or haven’t produced themselves, and we really need to find things that are tailor made that will suit their home market, but at the same time they have to be an alternative to what they’re able to make themselves.
Gray: One of the other things that’s been happening is the digital rollout. It’s been happening in the UK for some time, in terms of all the new digital channels, but it’s really starting to happen in Spain, Italy, and even Germany. So there are a lot of new opportunities. A similar kind of thing is happening in Asia too.
However, there may be more channels, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the cake is getting any bigger. I’m not saying anything new there. It’s being cut into smaller slices a lot of the time, so whereas before you could make a big blue-chip sort of thing at home in the uk and get one coproducer, now you can’t because people aren’t paying quite as much. You’re having to find more coproducers.

If you intended to form those international partnerships, what genres are working best?
Mutimer: At the moment, we’re finding there’s a lot of interest in science programming. Wildlife was very popular for a while, but a lot of those slots are closing down – zdf in Germany, Canal+ in France, Mediaset in Italy – they’ve all sort of withdrawn their wildlife slots, so it’s really being targeted more to the cable and satellite world at the moment.
One of the surprising changes is the demand for popular factual and reality, like Hell’s Kitchen, Airline and Monster Garage. That can help when it comes to local production. We’ve got shows like Come Dine with Me and Nanny that we’ve made local versions of in a number of territories, and once you’ve got a brand that’s popular, that’s what a lot of broadcasters are looking for in order to attract viewers. We’ve had a lot of success in reversioning factual programming.
Torrance: We have a lot of factual and it’s incredibly popular, especially things that are larger than life. They’ve all got titles like The Woman Who Ate Herself to Death or The Incredible Shrinking Woman. Those kind of shock docs are doing incredibly well at the moment.
The increase in local productions [has also been a boon]. We have Fear Factor and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, both of which have been produced in some territories as a local productions. But they have very high budgets so it’s not always possible for individual broadcasters to afford to do them, so we have had great success in providing popular shows broadcasters couldn’t necessarily afford to produce themselves.
For territories, we’re definitely finding there’s an increase for us in Eastern Europe. There’s also the UK – for us it’s a huge, expanding market with new Five channels [Five Live and Five US].
Röckmann-Portier: You really see openings in all markets: Asia and Latin America are developing; Eastern Europe has also changed a lot over the last five years.
As far as genres go, we have really been concentrating on lifestyle because we are finding that, as a hybrid between reality tv and factual entertainment, it’s definitely a genre that is very popular.

How do you ensure your lifestyle or factual entertainment has a new angle? There’s so much of it out there.
Kennedy: For us, most of it is really character-based programming when it comes to the lifestyle genre. While we’re looking for shows that are formatable, most of them really haven’t been because they’re so character driven. Things like Dog The Bounty Hunter, Ghost Hunters, and that type of reality. It is the character people are interested in, and we take it from there.
Röckmann-Portier: On shows that are host-based, I definitely think the charisma of the host really drives the whole show. It’s amazing to see how sometimes shows that don’t have any fancy-shmancy, unique angle all of a sudden sell extremely well because of the fact that the host is very charismatic and the audience is able to relate to them. We have designing shows that are doing very well for us, and two shows (Design Rivals and So Chic) with hosts Steven Sabados and Chris Hyndman. It’s really their character that makes these shows unique.
I also find that other shows that work well are ones that touch the public and which everyone can relate to – ones where you identify with people. We’re launching a show right now on couples preparing for their wedding; there’s never enough money and there’s always a lot of drama, which is something people can relate to and feel close to. [Ed: It's called Rich Bride, Poor Bride, and was one of realscreen's mipcom picks last issue.]
Mutimer: Characters and personalities are really important in lifestyle. Gordon Ramsay in Hell’s Kitchen is fantastic to sell because he just engages people.
But then there’s stories. You need to be able to tell a complete story [in each episode]. Each Nanny 911 tells its own story and comes to a conclusion. ‘From Hell’ is great because there’s a collection of strong stories within each one.
Gray: From my point of view, it’s also about working with the right types of producers. We make a point of working with producers with track records. We’ve worked in-house with Talkback Thames – obviously, they’ve got quite a strong history in terms of lifestyle with stuff like How Clean Is Your House? and Sex Inspectors – and we’re now working with Silver River Productions, which is Daisy Goodwin’s [of How Clean fame] new company. So identifying the right producers who have their finger on the pulse, that’s really key to us.

How do you find the producers who are going to make the next big hit?
Gray: We’ve got sales people in about eight different territories, and I get quite a lot of feedback from them, saying ‘Have you looked at this person? They’ve done this, that, and the other.’ We’ll then follow up to try and bring them together with producers to develop things. We’ve done that with a couple of Australian things recently, where we’ve got commissions there, in Asia, and in the UK, quite literally just by keeping our eyes on the press, and when we see someone we think is good or has potential, following it up and finding agents or talking directly to the talent. We also have an in-house producer in Talkback that we work with, but we’ll talk to other people too. We have to actively look for talent that’s going to fill these gaps and work in certain niches internationally.
Kennedy: We recently opened a Los Angeles office last year with Ron Glazer, formerly of Rive Gauche, and that was really the step-up effort on the production houses out there. We’re known primarily for us network programs, but a big part of our business has also been US cable. We’ve been fortunate with [series like] Dog on A&E, but primarily when we’re looking for younger talent, it’s something that may be a for-hire situation now. But, if a program has caught our eye, if it has been put together very well, we’ll nurture the relationship, then as time goes on we get involved to invest in earlier stages if it’s possible. That’s been pretty successful for us.
But having those big, high-profile shows means we’re also approached by the cable networks when something’s available. For example, there’s a 10-episode series called Bull Run that’s going to air on Spike and they came to us with it, which was a compliment. So those are people in the community we’ve worked with before, but are now working with in a new capacity [as producers].
Primarily, when you’re talking about new young talent, it’s about getting involved at an early stage and keeping an eye on what’s hot out there. I totally agree that the sales people come back with more info on what people are looking at and want… Everybody’s looking for that next big thing, so when we start to see heat from something, we focus that way.
Mutimer: We have an acquisitions and coproduction team whose job it is to go out there and find producers we want to work with and represent. We’re quite clear about only working with people who will complement what we’ve got in the catalog, because it’s not in our interest or a producer’s interest to work with someone just to get another hour of programming. The team we’ve got is split by genres, so we’ve got two people that have the sole task of going out and finding factual producers. They’ll attend conferences, go to festivals and go with salespeople on trips to key territories so they can hear firsthand what the channels around the world want. They can also work on coproductions and presales. So really, it’s a combination of trying to make sure they’ve got current, updated market information and really know who the key players are, and that they’re targeting people in the genres the sales team told them we need to get more programming in.
Röckmann-Portier: We have the advantage of also being a broadcaster. We operate five lifestyle channels in Canada, so in many ways it’s a comfortable position for me, because phase one is being taken care of. But I spend quite a lot of time liaising with my colleagues in broadcasting to make sure we are identifying shows that not only work for our domestic Canadian market, but will also have legs to stand on in the international market.

Being international companies, is it possible to cannibalize your own sales by doing local formats of your successful shows?
Torrance: Because Endemol has so many production companies in different territories, I find that I work really closely with those production companies already. We’re often working in tandem. You can often use the sale of a finished program to trial a format to see if it will work, or you can also find that there’s a secondary market for a different version of a program. For example, we sell different versions of Big Brother into territories where the Endemol partner company is producing it, or sell other versions of Fear Factor where people have bought the US version or are producing it themselves. We work very much hand-in-hand.
Gray: With How Clean Is Your House?, we have the British format and we also got it made in the us. We’ve been selling the US format, as well as getting our production companies to make it around the world, in the right territories according to local needs. I mean, face it, we talk on a territory-by-territory basis, and what’s good for one we’ll do wherever it’s actually going to maximize revenue. Sometimes they’ll show a UK or a US version first, then they’ll make their own or vice versa. It really depends on the territory. The question is communication.
Mutimer: To a certain extent, we have that model as well. We will reformat things, and either work with production companies where we’ve got them, or with independent producers. We will also go and find coproducers, so from an early stage we’ll try and make the program more relevant to a terrestrial broadcaster in some of the key territories like Germany, France, or Italy. We get them onboard at an early stage. We also have output deals with some of the key broadcasters around the world, so while domestic programming is increasing in importance in a lot of markets, there are still opportunities for acquired programming, and I think Granada’s size means we’re able to negotiate deals to make sure that where acquisitions are taking place, they’re looking at our programming first.

Is there any preference for one-offs or series?
Röckmann-Portier: You’re basically working with two groups of clients. On one hand, you have the main, free, terrestrial channels that pay decent money but acquire little and generally require very specific one-offs. You have to find programs that fall directly into an editorial line and that fit a specific slot. But, on the other hand, there is remarket value of these programs on the specialty channels that pay little but buy loads. The trick here is to find a way to satisfy both by selling one-offs that you can group under an umbrella theme and fulfill the needs of a strand.
We have a collection called ‘Turning Points of History,’ for example. It’s films made by very different directors but they’re all contemporary history. The idea is that, as one-offs, these films will work for the schedules of ARTE or France 2 or ZDF, but then at the same time we can also make deals with the cable channels and sell the whole lot of them.
Kennedy: We have a substantial library of reality clip shows and action shows, which are more light entertainment. There’s maybe 100 that fall into that single-episode or three-episode category that we take into groups of 13 or more and reversion to specific slots, and pitch them that way to different people. We haven’t done a reversioning, per se, ourselves, but we’ve allowed them to re-title and re-narrate. To do that you need producers with the same mindset who understand what has to be done.
Gray: We’d always rather sell series – the more programs, the more you get for them. Specials, as long as they really are special and high value, yeah, that’s fine. But we’d rather have series, particularly in the lifestyle arena.
Torrance: You have to have both types of programming in your catalog. Selling a one-off program to a terrestrial broadcaster in Germany for a very high license fee is very satisfying, but if you can sell 100 or 200 hours of something to a digital channel for a very small amount of money, you’ll probably end up with a higher license fee overall. Having both in your catalog makes you a powerful distributor because you can talk to all broadcasters.
Kennedy: One positive to the one-off, and I don’t mean the big event things, but the reality docs, is that it sometimes gives broadcasters a chance to take a three-episode series and test the waters, and then you can come back with a larger series.
Torrance: Mark, Tim and myself, as distribs who deal with quite a bit of UK programming, we’re quite used to dealing with short series because that’s often what the broadcasters here will commission, so often that’s what we have to fill.
Mutimer: ITV has a slot called ‘Real Life’ and they commission programs from a number of production companies. We’ve found that those shows work very well because they’re shock docs in a sense, and they’re unusual subjects. We know where we can sell that type of programming, so we’ll go out and look for similar types of it so that we’ve got a broad slate and we can talk to people not just about one hour, but about six hours.
And then, when we’re investing in series, we’ll also take into account the fact that in some countries we’re going to sell the whole series to a cable channel but in others we’re only going to be able to sell one or two episodes. It’s about being flexible in the way you buy and sell.

Where do the smaller distribs fit in the game these days – is it still viable to be niche?
Gray: I think it is. I think it’s a fairly accepted truth that the distributors that have the biggest challenges are the middle-sized ones. The niche ones with one or two genres that really know their customers and can get the model and the overhead right, they can do okay. I think it’s difficult to be halfway between the two, quite honestly.
Torrance: If you look at some of the kids’ or music and arts distributors, as Mark says, they know their buyers exactly – they know who to go to. They have their contacts and can look at a show and say, ‘Okay, we’ll call X, Y and Z.’ So, I think there is a role.

How have the dynamics changed now that distribs compete globally rather than as small domestic players?
Röckmann-Portier: In a lot of cases, even small distributors will sell international rights worldwide, so I think we have always been competing with each other and always will be.

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.