Audience & Strategy: Globetrotting TV

As networks are ramping up their international portfolios to drive new revenues, commissioners are having to find the right mix of content with global appeal and niche local programming. Here, realscreen explores their various international content strategies. (Pictured: Million Dollar Intern)
December 13, 2013

Increasingly, broadcasters and cable giants are ramping up their international portfolios to drive new revenues. For commissioners, that means finding the right mix of content with global appeal and niche local programming. Realscreen talked to execs from various network groups to find out what’s working for their international content strategies.

BBC Worldwide

GLOBAL TITLES: Million Dollar Intern (pictured above), Factomania, Best In Town

THE STRATEGY: In October, BBC Worldwide (BBCWW) announced plans to ramp up factual content in the areas of natural history, science and history, which will allow the company to work with a wider range of coproduction partners. The move is part of a larger commitment to grow content investment by £30 million (US$48.2 million) to £200 million annually, resulting in more first-look deals as well as fully-funded commissions for its channels. Next year, BBCWW will launch the premium factual channel BBC Earth, the drama channel BBC First and an as-yet-untitled, male-skewing factual channel.

WHAT TRAVELS WELL FOR BBCWW? Simple, compelling premises that are instantly identifiable in the title, and subject matter relevant to multiple markets. Talent-driven programs are key and, unsurprisingly, a lot of BBCWW’s on-air voices tend to speak with British accents.

Tracy Forsyth, vice president of commissioning for BBCWW, looks for “credible experts with a real palpable passion that’s not a cerebral passion, but a visceral one” with an ability to drive their own PR – “people that are smart [and] with heart that bounce off the screen,” she adds.

HOT MARKETS: South Africa, Poland, Brazil, Latin America

LOCAL COMMISSIONS: Market-specific concerns often drive the local commissioning strategy. For example, BBCWW aims to expand viewership among South Africa’s growing black middle class, while in Latin America, the company is looking to work with more local prodcos.

PARTNERSHIPS: “In the future, we will definitely look for more coproduction partners to increase budgets, scale and ambition,” Forsyth says. “We’re trying to make channel-defining commissions so the challenge will always be finding external coproduction partners that are aligned editorially. That is something I will be looking to do more in the next 18 months.”

A+E Networks

THE STRATEGY: A+E’s portfolio of channels – including History, A&E, Lifetime, Bio, H2, Crime & Investigation (CI) and Military History – is spreading across the globe via myriad joint venture partnerships and licensing agreements, with activity in early November including a UK launch for Lifetime, launches in the Philippines for Lifetime and H2, and channel launches in France via a partnership with Canal+. According to Christian Murphy, senior vice president of international programming and marketing for the group, its combination of successful character-based franchise series and tentpole event programming has propelled strong growth for the international channels, currently seen in more than 150 countries in 37 languages.

“We spend quite a lot of time, energy and money around identifying key tent-pole events for our brands, mostly in the history space but it can be elsewhere,” he says, citing Mankind: the Story of Us as a mini-series that performed well internationally, and Big History, a series narrated by Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston that recently premiered in the U.S. on H2, as a newer example.

WHAT TRAVELS WELL FOR A+E? Murphy calls the History smash Pawn Stars, several seasons deep, “the gift that keeps on giving,” due to what he calls its “universal appeal.” While the American version of the show is, as he puts it, “‘top of the pops’ in most markets it’s in,” a UK version also airs on History in the region, and another local version is currently casting. Storage Wars is also strong internationally as are other “artefactual” series such as American Pickers and American Restoration.

Interestingly, the top-rated unscripted series on American cable television, Duck Dynasty, is a little bit slower out of the gate in terms of garnering big international audiences. “It hasn’t yet been universally embraced,” says Murphy. “It takes a little bit of time for viewers to warm up to it but once they get into it, it grows pretty quickly.”

HOT MARKETS: Latin America, India, Asia. “South Africa, we feel, has huge potential,” Murphy adds.

PARTNERSHIPS: Murphy says the international channels “still have a real need for blue-chip, event-style programming. So we’re looking to come together as a global network and do copros with our channel partners.” 

National Geographic Channels International

THE STRATEGY: The bulk of NGCI’s commissioning takes place out of the company’s headquarters in Washington, DC, with the international channels taking a large portion of shows originating from the U.S. market. The remaining 30% is content specifically commissioned for the international channels. The company also commissions local programming in local languages to complement globally facing content.

Although international commissions go to a wide base of producers, most are awarded to UK companies. “That’s just an indication of the real health of the factual production sector in the UK at the moment,” says Hamish Mykura, EVP and head of international content for NGCI. “As we look to the future I would definitely welcome a period where it’s just as easy to commission a quality show from Singapore or Colombia as it is from LA, New York or London. That is rapidly approaching.”

WHAT TRAVELS WELL FOR NGCI? Universal appeal is the M.O. at NGCI. Shows with big emotional pay-offs, such as automotive refurbishing series Car S.O.S., the network’s number one show in Japan, or man-against-nature docuseries such as Wicked Tuna, resonate. Big science programming such as Seth McFarlane’s upcoming 13-part take on Cosmos or U.S.-centric history programming that can double as a primer for global audiences, such as the JFK doc Seven Days that Made a President, also works well abroad.

“A hit is a hit is a hit, and if you’ve got a show that’s really working in one territory, it’s more than likely that show will travel well to most other territories,” he says.

HOT MARKETS: Asia, Southeast Asia, Latin America

LOCAL COMMISSIONS: Local commissions are often undertaken with an eye to formatting them in similar markets. The In Focus Asia-produced paranormal series I Wouldn’t Go In There follows urban explorers investigating haunted sites in cities across Asia and has either aired or been remade for multiple markets across the continent. “You can really build a brand out of a success in a region,” he says.

PARTNERSHIPS: When NGCI’s American counterpart does not come on board as a partner, the company regularly turns to PBS, the Smithsonian Channel, the Weather Channel or MSNBC in the U.S. In Europe, Channel 4, BBC, ZDF and France Télévisions have partnered with NGCI. Mykura does not mind losing a territory or two if it means funding a big, expensive project.

“We’re more flexible about coproductions than some producers realize,” he says. “We’ll window with the terrestrial broadcaster and we’ll take the rest of the international rights. That model is really important for us in terms of the way we fund our output overall.”

Scripps Networks Interactive

GLOBAL TITLES: Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives; Great Train Rides; Jenny Powell’s Luxury Uncovered

THE STRATEGY: Four years ago, Scripps launched its brands Food Network, Travel Channel and Fine Living internationally. The channels are built on the 2,000 annual programming hours the cable giant commissions each year, with targeted commissions adding local flavor. Roughly 80% of the programming comes from the Scripps catalog, 10-15% comes from acquisitions and 5-10% falls under either original commissions or pre-sales.

WHAT TRAVELS WELL FOR SCRIPPS? Initially, Scripps’ SVP of content and marketing for EMEA, Nick Thorogood, thought Food Network would have to go extremely local in appeal. Instead he has found viewers open to programming about international cuisine or American food.

“People love different food. It’s finding the things people can relate to,” he says, adding that a particular recipe, however unfamiliar, can be made relatable through familiar ingredients.

“Your food memories of those flavors are good enough that you can have the vicarious experience,” he adds. “That works so well for food and yet we’re really trying to make it work for wine. For a lot of people if they see a glass of red wine, they can’t imagine anything other than one generic taste for red wine.”

In terms of travel programming, a recognizable international brand is a good hook. He points to Great Train Rides, which is produced in partnership with the Orient Express group and stars a vintage train.

HOT MARKETS: United Kingdom, Sub- Saharan Africa, South Africa, Eastern Europe

LOCAL COMMISSIONS: In South Africa, Thorogood has found several companies that produce high-quality programming in line with brand values that complement its library of American programs.

However, familiarizing international audiences with certain genres can require a broader strategy. For example, shows about street food are popular in the U.S. but the genre is not well represented on TV in the UK. To introduce it, the network brought on Andy Bates, a presenter known for British street food, and created short-form content to air as interstitials around U.S. programming.

The network then greenlit a 15 x 30-minute series focusing on street food across the UK and then Andy Bates’ American Street Feasts, in which the titular host traverses the U.S.

PARTNERSHIPS: Scripps has partnered on mixed-funding projects with international partners, such as Recipes That Rock, which originated in Australia, or with traditional broadcasters if the show will air on a multichannel platform home to a Scripps brand. For example, the South African program Charly’s Cake Angels airs first on terrestrial broadcaster SABC and Scripps has the secondary rights.

“We have to come up with clever models in which we all share the risk and the benefit and I think people are far more open to it than they were three or four years ago,” he says.

Discovery Networks International

GLOBAL TITLES: Naked and Afraid, Breaking Magic, Unexplained Files

THE STRATEGY: Under Julian Bellamy, DNI’s London-based creative director and head of production and development, the company produced 1,200 hours of content in 2012, including regional and international commissions, and will have upped that number by year’s end for 2013.

The company aims to commission shows in its core genres to air across as many markets as possible and then share that content with sister networks in the U.S., such as the RAW TV-produced Unexplained Files which is a hit for DNI in Latin America and Science Channel in the U.S.

“You can’t just provide local content to every single market because it’s incredibly expensive to do that,” says Sarah Davies, vice president of factual development for DNI. “And it’s actually more risky because if it doesn’t work, you’ve put a huge amount of eggs in one basket.”

WHAT TRAVELS WELL FOR DNI? Popular science series that are educational with a lowercase ‘e,’ series that mix science with magic, and survival are big genres for Discovery overseas, as they are at home in the United States.

Paranormal series tend to go over well in Latin America. “You can’t rely on purely zeitgeist or character-driven shows,” says Davies. “You have to understand what it is your audience is coming to those shows for.”

HOT MARKETS: Latin America and Brazil. Says Davies: “If I could speak Portuguese, I’d move there. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if the Brazilian market overtook the British market in terms of the ratings and the money that is driven through that market.”

Davies is increasingly seeing the robust UK indie market branching out into international territories through local commissions in territories such as Brazil where homegrown prodcos can’t keep up with demand for hours. “If the British indies can build bridges now and get to know not just us, but the other channels, I think Latin America is a really clever place to be.”

LOCAL COMMISSIONS: These are primarily driven by lifestyle programming. However, if a particular factual program proves popular in a specific market, a local version will be commissioned. That happened with the survival series Dual Survival in Brazil.

PARTNERSHIPS: Davies also looks for series and docs airing locally that can be reversioned to air internationally or in the United States. For example, the Magnolia-produced Shopping Night started as an Italian show on DNI’s Real Time channel. It was such a hit that DNI turned it into Shopaholic Showdown and Desafio Fashionista to air globally.

  • With additional files by Barry Walsh
  • This article appears in the current November/December issue of realscreen magazine. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
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About The Author
Jillian Morgan is the Associate Editor at Realscreen with a background in journalism and digital marketing. She joined the publication in 2019 after serving as the assistant editor to trade publications HPAC and On-Site. With a bachelor of journalism from the University of King's College in Halifax, she also works as a freelance writer and fact-checker.