Year in review, part 1: SVOD, sizzling stakes, premium plays

It's time once again to look back on the year that was. In the first part of our Year in Review, realscreen recounts the trends and news stories that impacted the past year, and will impact the year ahead. (Pictured: Racing Extinction)
December 23, 2015

It’s time once again to look back on the year that was. In the first part of our Year in Review, realscreen recounts the trends and news stories that impacted the past year, and will impact the year ahead.

Premium Power Plays

In January, shortly after new Discovery Channel president Rich Ross took office, the newly anointed topper made headlines with his proclamation that the network would be eschewing the loud and high-rating “docufiction” template as seen in Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives and Mermaids: The Body Found. Instead, the aim was now to gravitate towards a more authentic approach to content. Shortly thereafter, Discovery announced its acquisition of Louie Psihoyos’ Racing Extinction at Sundance and revealed plans for a global airing, across its 220 countries and territories worldwide.

national geographic channel's 'breakthrough'

National Geographic Channel’s ‘Breakthrough’

Meanwhile, National Geographic Channel (NGC) followed up its huge success with the 2014 reboot of Cosmos with announcements of more premium limited series, including ‘Breakthrough.’ Exec produced by Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, the six-part series was co-developed with global brand GE, and featured a different Hollywood luminary in the director’s chair for each installment. Prior to its November premiere, NGC CEO Courteney Monroe told realscreen the move towards premium content was a vital component of Nat Geo’s strategy going forward.

“Because Nat Geo is about quality and it’s about science and adventure and exploration, my vision is this channel lives up to the brand by creating big, event-driven TV that is, quite frankly, worthy of the Nat Geo brand,” she said.

While some pundits frame cable’s rush for the A-listers and premium content as a move to counter the salvo of buzzworthy, big budget content from such players as HBO and Netflix, it’s probably more appropriate to view it as a bid to decisively cut through the clutter of increasingly fragmented media. And while other cable networks are approaching premium through the scripted arena (see A+E’s upcoming reboot of Roots), in the year ahead, it’ll be worth keeping an eye out to see what other nets embrace the “bigger, better, fewer” philosophy, and the impact it will have on series commissions. Barry Walsh

More SVOD on the scene

The online video-streaming market became increasingly crowded in 2015. The year saw a number of key players advancing into the digital space in a bid to steal away the 46.4% market share currently held by SVOD giant Netflix, which continued undeterred in its aggressive global expansion with the hopes of reaching nearly 200 markets by the end of 2016.



Amazon Prime was one of the biggest noisemakers of the year, having finally thrown its hat in as a serious factual player by signing the faces behind the world’s most widely watched factual program – former Top Gear presenters Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May – to a three-year contract. In October, the nascent content platform also picked up the 10-part fashion-focused docuseries The Fashion Fund from Condé Nast Entertainment. The deal is the second with CNE, currently working with Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw Productions on the docuseries The New Yorker Presents.

A series of postings for unscripted positions from Amazon also made the rounds over the summer, pointing towards increased interest in the genre from the global e-commerce giant.
In March, Discovery Communications founder and former chairman John Hendricks launched CuriosityStream, the world’s first factual SVOD platform, across the U.S. before entering the international arena in September. Headed by Elizabeth Hendricks North, the service currently provides its subscriber base approximately 1,000 original and licensed titles concerning science, natural history, technology and history, including the Mo Rocca-hosted Innovation Nation; the 11-part astronomy series Destination Pluto; and the five-part, technology-focused Next World. In December, CuriosityStream partnered with SVOD service Amazon Prime to be offered as an “add-on” subscription service.

Other factual SVOD movers and shakers included Smithsonian Networks, who launched Smithsonian Earth in mid-November, offering original nature and wildlife content in high definition and Ultra HD/4K resolution; Netherlands-based TERN International, which unveiled its Ultra HD/4K channel Insight at MIPCOM; and Eureka Media-owned platform AeroCinema, which is set to launch in March and promises more than 400 rare aviation features, documentaries and profiles in HD and 4K. Daniele Alcinii

An Idol Goodbye

As the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. And so it went in May, when Fox announced the cancellation of American Idol during an upfront presentation, and set a series finale for the end of the forthcoming season. The news might not have come as a surprise to the industry observers who’ve been noting the program’s sliding ratings for several seasons, but Idol‘s demise in the U.S. – soon followed by the cancellation of America’s Next Top Model after 22 seasons of “smizing” – still signaled the end of an era for American television, which some viewers have come to expect in primetime viewing, even if they stopped tuning in years ago.

american idol

American Idol

In a September realscreen feature, teams behind Survivor and The Amazing Race, among others, discussed how they keep their formats fresh. Mark Burnett explained that his “letter” to the audience contained a different message each season, while The Amazing Race creator Bertram van Munster pointed out the Race‘s far-flung locations were pretty compelling on their own, regardless of seasonal twists. Most intriguing of all, several producers agreed that the end of Idol wasn’t exactly ringing alarm bells for reality producers, and that American Idol might be down, but it’s hardly out.

“What tends to happen with really great formats where there’s a built-in audience is that the format will go off-air for a year or maybe three years, but it will come back,” said Sony Pictures Television’s Jane Dockery, who oversees such formats as Dragon’s Den and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

So what will the reality landscape look like for legacy formats in a post-American Idol world? Expect to see The Voice – which in September picked up its second Emmy award for outstanding reality competition – stay on top, while formats such as Big Brother and Survivor increase their currency with buzzy (and diverse!) twists, such as transgender house-guests and audience-voted cast members. Manori Ravindran

Sizzling Stakes and Deals Aplenty

Mergers, acquisitions and the snapping up of stakes continued relatively unabated in 2015, with several of the deals having a distinctly digital edge to them.

The Vice/A+E Networks joint venture was finally confirmed in November, with news of the early 2016 launch of Viceland, a 24-hour channel that will be entirely programmed by the Vice team. H2, the A+E brand that is making way for Viceland, will continue to be carried internationally. Vice also announced a Canadian Viceland channel through its tie-up with Rogers Communications, also slated for an early 2016 launch, and CEO Shane Smith revealed to the UK press plans for more channel deals in the UK and Europe. Meanwhile, Disney upped its stake in the millennial brand, and HBO extended its content deal with Smith and his team for another four years, into 2018.

shane smith

Vice’s Shane Smith

ITV continued on the acquisition path by snapping up format powerhouse Talpa Media for US$531.68 million (which led to the commercial broadcaster also acquiring Talpa’s The Voice UK from 2017), Twofour Group for an initial $86.58 million, and a minority share of YouTube network Channel Mum.

American indie Pilgrim Studios, the shop behind Discovery’s Fast ‘n’ Loud and Syfy’s Ghost Hunters, entered into a “strategic investment” with Lionsgate, with the latter reportedly taking a majority stake in Craig Piligian’s prodco.

Global network groups also continued to snap up regional networks, with Scripps finalizing its acquisition of TVN Poland in July, ITV purchasing the television assets of Northern Ireland’s UTV, and Discovery moving from a controlling stake into full ownership of Eurosport. Discovery and Eurosport also splashed out big bucks (approximately 1.44 billion of them) for an exclusive European multi-plaform broadcast and distribution deal for four Olympic Games between 2018 and 2024. BW

Look for part two of our year in review in early January. And it’s not too late to take part in our annual year-end survey, which you can read more about here.

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