MIPCOM Buyers Buzz: Carlyn Staudt, National Geographic Channel

With MIPCOM fast approaching, realscreen chatted with several acquisitions execs to find out what may be on their shopping lists for the market. Here, Carlyn Staudt, SVP, global acquisitions for National Geographic Channel in Washington, talks about what's working for her channels now, and her search for hidden gems.
September 23, 2009

With MIPCOM fast approaching, realscreen chatted with several acquisitions execs to find out what may be on their shopping lists for the market. Here, Carlyn Staudt, SVP, global acquisitions for National Geographic Channel in Washington, talks about what’s working for her channels now, and her search for hidden gems.

What have been a few of the more successful acquisitions for NGCI over the course of the past year?

We have had great success throughout our international markets with Apocalypse: The Second World War that just aired this September. It’s a six-part series that was acquired from France Televisions Distribution and programmed to commemorate the anniversary of the start of WWII. Globally, meaning for both NGC-US and NGCI, I acquired a series this year titled Secrets of the Cross from ITV Global, which was originally produced for FIVE in the UK. It aired on the channel this past April and achieved solid ratings in the US market as well as the majority of our international regions. It appears that bible topics produced well with a strong story structure definitely carry that global reach that is often hard to achieve from other products.

As for NGC-US, there are two stand-out programs this year that come to mind. The first was a film on Lincoln’s life (The Real Abraham Lincoln) which we acquired from Vidicom, a German production company, and it was re-versioned to air on Obama’s inauguration evening this past January. The second was a one-hour distributed by DCD Rights called China’s Elephant Man, which chronicles the story of a young man who suffers from exceptionally large tumors as he undergoes his first surgery to combat the disease.

What is the current ratio between acquisitions and NGC-US/NGCI coproductions or commissions?

For NGCI, acquisitions make up approximately 20% of the overall yearly premiere hours but can reach as high as 25-30% in specific regions that support localized acquisition budgets. For NGC-US, the amount is a bit less at roughly 10-15% of the overall yearly premiere hours. But this is to be expected, as it’s challenging to import material into the US given viewers’ appetite for locally relevant subject matter, American hosts and a more action-driven storytelling style, all of which are often difficult to find on the international acquisitions market.

Given that you’re buying for a range of channels, can you tell us what you’re looking for this year for each?

For the National Geographic Channel (NGC), I’m always on the look out for strong science one-offs and limited series. It’s one of the primary genres of the channel and thus constantly needs to be fed with content. Also at the top of the list is access-driven contemporary stories to fulfill our ‘Inside’ strands in the US and internationally. For natural history and engineering, there is more of an appetite internationally, as the slots on the US channel are currently limited and driven primarily by coproduction or commissions. Bible subject matter seems to strike a chord with our audiences globally and that is a niche genre that will be on my wish list moving into this fiscal year. With respect to the NGC, one-offs and limited series certainly drive the majority of what I buy.

For Nat Geo Wild, the range of acquisitions across the natural history genre is very broad with respect to the topics and format. Cheetahs: Against All Odds from Nature Conservation Films and Superfish: Fastest Predator In the Sea from Wildlogic both rated very well internationally this year and have proven to me that there will always be a healthy appetite for blue-chip material. I also look for limited and multipart series that can be easily stripped across a schedule. These types of series are the lighter animal docusoaps and clip shows such as Zoo Tales from Cineflix International, Game Ranger Diaries from IMG or Caught In the Act from Parthenon.

The focus in the coming year for Nat Geo Adventure will be on acquiring limited and multipart travel series that focus on unforgettable trips where you will experience the best destinations in the world, get immersed in the local culture, the flavors of the country and the spirit of its people. If there is any channel that I buy for where I’m less interested in one-offs and more interested in multipart series, it would be Nat Geo Adventure.

Whit Higgins of National Geographic Channel US once told us that he thought producers may ‘censor themselves’ when pitching to NGC, not being aware of the dynamic nature of the brand. Do you think that perception exists from producers and distributors looking to sell programming as well? How would you counter that perception?

I absolutely find this to be true, especially when being pitched finished material from smaller independent producers or more niche distributors, but among large distributors it’s only to a certain extent. Many distributors and producers have a preconceived idea of what programming topics National Geographic Channel features. My best bit of advice for them would be to watch the channel over a period of time as well as access our websites both domestically and internationally to study the schedule.They will be sure to notice that the channel is dynamic and diverse with regard to topics, genres and storytelling approach.

That said, I think it’s a fine line that distributors must walk between pitching their entire catalog to a buyer and being too targeted in their presentation. I would suggest shooting more towards a middle ground where you present material that meets the channel’s needs once you’ve researched the current content but also allow for a few out-of-the-box pitches. We are always interested in evolving our programming and schedule so if distributors limit themselves too much, we might never discover those hidden gems.

Are there any topics or subjects that you’re not pursuing at present in terms of natural history?

Natural history is and always will be a core genre for National Geographic Channel. It’s also a genre that is constantly evolving by blending itself with other types and styles of programming such as science, mystery and docusoap. So I think by limiting what you source, you limit your ability to identify what could be the next big hit or the next evolution of the genre.

How has the current state of the global economy impacted the amount and quality of content you’ve seen over the course of the year? Have some regions been impacted more severely than others in terms of producing content?

I haven’t noticed a huge drop in the amount of natural history or wildlife on the market just yet. There is still ample product available across all types of formats. A drop might become more evident in the coming year as the acquisitions market tends to slow only after commissioning and coproduction decreases. Therefore, there could be a delayed effect which will reveal itself in the next two MIP markets.

My experience with the natural history production community is that they are a resilient and passionate group of people. Consistently up against smaller commissioning budgets and limited slots, they always seem to find new ways to tell stories and new ways to produce in a cost-effective manner. It’s unlikely that this current global economic situation will prove too much for the community to handle.

Lastly, on a not so serious note, when retiring after a hard day of meetings in Cannes, what’s your drink of choice?

Is this a trick question? When on the French Rivera, I didn’t think there was any other answer then a nice glass of rosé wine.

Look for more acquisition exec Q&As in the September/October issue of realscreen.

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