The developing story

Despite the financial flux enveloping production companies, broadcasters and audiences today, our informal panel of development execs makes the argument that this is an incredibly exciting time to be developing factual television. Realscreen talks to Richard Shaw, head of development for London-based Lion Television, Bravo VP of development Cori Abraham and Anita Bezjak, VP factual development for Beyond Productions to find out more.
November 1, 2009

How has the global economic situation impacted development, in your opinion?

Richard Shaw: Different broadcasters have responded quite differently to the recession. Some have dealt with it tonally by asking really intelligent questions – for example, where do people want to go when times are hard, what do they want to watch when they come home? Others have been less imaginative and simply decided to show a bunch of repeats and retreat into a bunker and wait for the ad revenues to return. Many have moved resources from drama into factual. And in the UK, terrestrial broadcasters have responded with a combination of tighter budgets and downward pressure on artists’ salaries – the latter driven as much by intense media pressure as by the recession.

Commercial broadcasters are having a really tough financial time, so we have to provide ideas that are cost-effective but still high impact and genuinely exciting. In the past feature films used to be the hardest things to get funded; these days it can be just as hard to get a conventional documentary series funded and there can be layer upon layer of commissioning execs who interrogate every decision, which reflects a deep underlying nervousness.

Cori Abraham: It doesn’t necessarily affect how we do business per se. We’ve got more hours of original programming next year than we did this year, and this year had substantially more than last year, so we’re continuing to grow. As far as how we do business, how we take pitches and how we decide what to develop, we’re conscious and aware of it, and we want to be smart about how we’re spending our money, but we’re still buying and developing.

Are you seeing any specific trends with broadcasters currently? What are they looking for in factual?

RS: Even more than in the past clarity of proposition is incredibly important. You have to be really clear with straightforward headlines, a simple and compelling original intelligent proposition that you get in one sentence. Inspiring high-concept also gets traction and more than ever building around talent has become important. Also we’ve found that a well-received primary series has more potential for brand extension these days as broadcasters extend the precinct of a successful series.

Broadcasters want big and ambitious, but they also want to minimize risk. Talent is critical to primetime, of course, because it’s a way of mitigating risk and I think it’s more important now than it’s ever been. But it is also inspiring to see BBC One launch a series on modern art in peak with a completely new presenter.

Anita Bezjak: There has been a marked increase in demand for factual programming but I think that’s mainly because ‘factual’ has broadened beyond just meaning documentaries. Today genres such as lifestyle, infotainment, docusoap and game shows all sit under the fact-ent banner and there’s an increasing appetite for programming where the information or value add is embedded organically. Strong characters and story lines, authentic scenarios and access all continue to dominate broadcaster wish lists.

Has the potential for multi-platform distribution of a title impacted storylines, budgets, etc. in a considerable way? Are you thinking more of titles that can be spread across platforms or is it a case of, ‘It’s nice if it happens, but…’?

RS: 360 isn’t a passing phenomenon, it’s real and it’s going to become more and more important in the future in the UK. For companies like Lion who have a highly developed digital component it’s central to our development thinking because of who we work with. We’re also regularly handling the digital elements of commissions where the linear telly is being made by our competitors. Plus web-native projects are going to blossom in the next few years. If you don’t have multi-channel, multi-platform content at the heart of your development in the UK you’re going to be left behind when it comes to standing out from the crowd and grabbing a commissioner’s attention. This means web-original content and yes, sometimes it even impacts what’s on screen.

Right now we’re following up on Britain from Above in two other territories and in the UK we have a 2010 project on two mainstream channels with a significant online component that will repeat the impact of BfA. For us it’s not simply ‘nice’ if 360-degree happens, we have big ambitions in this territory – with some projects we even have to lead broadcasters by showing them just how much deeper and richer an experience can be if it lives in a multi-channel, multi-platform world.

CA: It depends on the project. We’re always looking at where and how else something can play, be it on the Web or on phones or anywhere else. I’d never buy a show based on the technology, it really has to be about the narrative, the story, the characters – really, [it's] about characters on Bravo. Then once we establish what would be a great show, we have an amazing team here who comes up with and brainstorms ways to have the full 360 played out.

How do you feel audiences are evolving?

RS: Audiences want to be entertained with intelligent diverting content, it’s as simple as that. We think audiences want less cynicism these days; programs that are working in the UK right now have warmth, wit, intelligence and emotion at their heart. Think of what you watch when you flop onto the sofa – is what you’re developing really what you’d find engaging after dinner?

Audiences are also increasingly seduced by scale and ambition – just as broadcasters are. I’m interested in the passing of Big Brother in the UK. It doesn’t mean that factual entertainment is over, far from it, but the really good ideas are few and far on the ground.

AB: We’ve seen a number of broadcasters rebranding over the last couple of years to identify even more with their target audiences. This affects our development process because it means we have to focus ideas specifically for each client. However, despite the very precise demographics, there’s anecdotal evidence to suggest that HD sets are motivating more communal viewing in families where everyone wants to watch the big screen. So while the target viewer is defined, when we’re developing an idea we also take into account a secondary tier that is likely to include different ages and both genders.

What are the main factors that impact the success of any given idea?

AB: If you’ve got great talent, great production values and great writing, it’s almost a slam dunk that you’ve got a successful program. But the most successful programs in any genre are the ones that not only have been fully realized in terms of concept to screen but have that singular ‘something.’ Often that intangible can be timing. The relevance of an idea does impact how the program resonates and if the timing’s not right, then something that should work, doesn’t.

CA: Obviously, what’s in the zeitgeist. We at Bravo try to do shows that are forward-thinking. So it’s about finding out what’s about to break in our five affinity groups, which are fashion, food, design, beauty and pop culture, and beyond, to get a sense of how we can make a show about it and have it on the air at just the right time.

RS: The best pitches we make are the ones when we just love the project in spite of all our colleagues looking on like we’re some sort of deranged nutters. Read the red-tops, watch telly and then develop the stuff that really rocks your world.

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