In what was a challenging year in the non-fiction and unscripted industry, there was still plenty of work worth celebrating. It’s time once again to salute the risk-takers, innovators, explorers and pace-setters of the past year with our annual selection of Trailblazers. We begin our look at 2015′s Trailblazers with Discovery Communications’ Rich Ross (pictured), Mongol TV’s Nomin Chinbat and Secret Location’s James Milward.
Group president, Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, Science Channel
A mere matter of days after beginning his tenure as Discovery Channel president, former Disney and Shine America executive Rich Ross was facing the international press at the 2015 winter TCA Tour, providing an insight into where he wanted to take the channel on the year ahead that subsequently proved remarkably accurate.
At the Discovery Channel presser, he maintained that Discovery would be steering away from high-rating but controversial documentary-style scripted fare featuring mermaids and megalodons, and, under the oversight of newly appointed head of documentaries and specials and former HBO exec John Hoffman, embrace authenticity anew. As well, after commenting that Discovery Channel had become “more narrowly niche” than it needed to be, he vowed to bring programming to the fore that would appeal to a broader audience, in an effort to become “the number one TV brand for the whole family.”
Twelve months later, Discovery, under Ross, has led the charge in a global roll-out of the latest film from acclaimed documentarian Louie Psihoyos, Racing Extinction (acquired at Sundance in 2015, again mere days after Ross and Hoffman set up shop at Discovery). And, according to Nielsen, it finished the year as one of the few cable nets to be up – significantly, by over 11% – over the year prior for total viewers and for the first time ever, was U.S. cable’s top non-sports network for men.
The Psihoyos film rolled out on December 2 in 220 countries and territories, and racked up 11.6 million viewers in the U.S. according to Live+3 numbers from Nielsen. More major doc projects are in the works, including an airing of the acclaimed Sherpa from Jennifer Peedom during the upcoming ‘Elevation Week’ programming stunt.
And while MythBusters, one of Discovery’s longest-running series, will be signing off after its final season in 2016, “We will be returning all our hit series back with ratings above where they were before,” Ross maintains.
Now serving as a group president with the flagship channel as well as Animal Planet and Science Channel under his watch, Ross says he’s “bullish” about the chances for the two other nets to mirror Discovery’s growth. While scripted programs remain an area of interest, with two – Harley and the Davidsons and Manifesto – on the way for early 2016, Ross says such projects will have to “connect with our brand and our audience.”
You’ve just come off the global roll-out for Racing Extinction. Given that it was the first major documentary project that typifies Discovery’s, and your, interest in doc projects that make an impact, what are your thoughts about how it all went?
I’m thrilled, because people had come to believe that doing good does not mean doing well. Seeing the tens of millions of people who’ve now seen it and the impressions from all around the world –it gave me pause because it’s one thing to think about it but it’s another thing to actually see it happen.
Is it fair to say that this renewed interest in big feature docs is in some way inspired by the aggressive moves in the genre from competitors like Netflix or HBO?
What we recognized from the beginning and I felt very strongly about was that only we can walk in the door to Louie Psihoyos and say ‘We’ll air this in 220 countries in one night.’ Everybody else has versions or pieces of our strategy, but we knew that if you turned on Discovery in any one of 220 countries and territories on that night in December, you were going to see Racing Extinction.
Many in the industry took notice when you said you would push for Discovery content to retain a sense of authenticity. Is that a trend you see continuing in 2016?
Having seen what happened with Naked and Afraid XL [the top unscripted freshman series of the year], it’s a combination of aspirational and authentic and if anything, those two As are the big difference. People aren’t looking to spiral down into negativity – we have enough of that in our world. People are asking, ‘What can you tell me that I will be inspired by?’ So I think that combination is very vital, and commercially viable. Barry Walsh
CEO, Mongol TV
In the four years since taking the reins as CEO of Mongol TV, Nomin Chinbat has shown that Mongolia’s got talent, and some tenacity, too.
For years, the television market in the East Asian country of just three million has been saturated with about 150 channels competing for viewership – often turning to piracy to broadcast top programming they can’t otherwise afford. Chinbat has long pushed for legitimate acquisitions in order to create an even playing ground for all broadcasters, and in 2014 she helped to launch the Mongol TV Forum to discuss these issues and attract international suppliers to the country. The latter crusade paid off for Chinbat in a big way this year when Mongol TV launched a localized format of Got Talent, after a multi-season deal inked with producers Syco Entertainment and FremantleMedia last December.
Following a 13-week run that ended in early December, Mongolia’s Got Talent smashed the country’s ratings record by earning 90% of the market share. Production is now underway for a Mongolian Gogglebox, set to air next March, and Chinbat is busy preparing for the third annual Mongol TV Forum in February.
You’ve mentioned in the past that it could be “all hands on deck” at Mongol TV to produce a show such as Got Talent. How did the production go?
We’re not a big station, the country is small and the talent pool for tradespeople isn’t as big as for any other country, so we always have to pull in our own talent within the station. Everybody from our station – from different productions – pitched in and we were able to push it on to the exact air time and it went on without any glitches.
I imagine Gogglebox will be a little less intense for you?
After you’ve done Got Talent, you feel like you can do anything else.
In the future, how will you handle acquiring more international formats?
We’ve now learned how to deal with the larger formats, and how much capacity and human resources we need, so we’re looking to produce about four formats – one large, one medium, one small and one kids’ format – a year.
In what ways has the Mongol TV Forum grown since 2014?
As a station, we kind of thought that being on your own and pushing the content rights or format rights and acquiring content on your own wasn’t working as well as it should be. We were competing on unfair ground and we were buying when others are pirating. If the copyright laws were followed, I saw a way out of unnecessary complications, so that’s why we started the [Forum].
It started a dialog on copyright, and because of it a lot of people got to know international suppliers and they actually started communicating. Some stations didn’t have a way in to the international market, so they started to [learn]. This year, we’re really hoping to push people to actually try to find the proper format instead of stealing formats. Before, we were more into [developing] content, but now we think formats are the next [step] because we’ve shown that Got Talent can be successful.
Do you see a reduction in piracy among other broadcasters?
Yes, because – first of all – at least people are aware now that they’re pirating. Secondly, larger or bigger networks are more cautious about pirating and they’re starting to acquire. They still have some piracy but it’s not as big [an issue] as it used to be.
What are you most proud of from this past year?
I think I never realized how a TV program can change the country’s view of something or unite the country. With Mongolia’s Got Talent, I see that Mongolia is in a crisis and everybody’s having a very difficult time but this [show] has brought something bright into people’s lives and united the country, which is amazing. Manori Ravindran
Executive producer and founder, Secret Location
James Milward doesn’t claim to have all the answers to the world of digital, or even some. The term ‘digital,’ he says, is becoming obsolete, and with so many verticals at play, the industry is no closer than it was 10 years ago to cracking the model for how it’s going to work. But if anyone is having success navigating the plethora of unknowns, it’s Milward and his Toronto- and Los Angeles-based content studio Secret Location, which works in interactive docs, app development and award-winning virtual reality (VR), among other projects.
The Entertainment One-backed company in September picked up the first-ever Emmy Award presented to a virtual reality project for Sleepy Hollow: VR Experience, which won a Creative Arts Emmy for user experience and visual design. Weeks later, it collaborated with PBS’ investigative journalism strand ‘Frontline’ for the latter’s first VR documentary, Ebola Outbreak: A Virtual Journey, and in October, Secret Location officially signed with United Talent Agency.
Milward modestly points out that awards serve as validation but aren’t a “fundamental game-changer.” That may be, but only because Secret Location is changing the game all on its own. A year ago, the company – which now has about 60 projects on the go at any given time – had a VR output of about 5%. Now, almost 12 months since signing with Chris Milk’s VR content studio VRSE.Works, about half of the company’s projects are in VR.
A ‘Secret’ to success? Avoid a specific platform, and be ubiquitous. “It’s in our best interest, in terms of our interest and experience, to be really focused on all of these places you can tell the best stories,” Milward offers.
There are, increasingly, a lot of players entering VR. Where does Secret Location fit into this landscape?
VR is a very ripe platform for immersive storytelling, and it’s something we’ve been doing on a number of different platforms as they become available to us. We’ve always been figuring out how story and character and the audience interact together. Where that plays in VR is we have a completely immersive environment, 360 degrees, 3D, and the more sophisticated it can be, it can actually have agency and the ability to interact and affect that story. We’re bringing all our experience to try and create those meaningful stories, some of which we’ll have a more specific hand in owning the content or IP for, and some we’ll help facilitate for partners and clients.
What can we expect to see from VR storytelling in the non-fiction realm?
I think tech and pipelines get more and more refined, the more investment and time goes by. I think we’ll see more and more players in the tech and software markets, more and more people trying to define a technological process, and then we’ll see more and more films and narratives get made – a lot of which will be rough and won’t be good, and some of which will be better than others. And as we see those evolutionary stories start to be developed, people will start to steal and repeat and take the best of what they see and evolve the format further, just as with every cinematic medium.
Most people put on VR and it wouldn’t matter what it was, they just have their mind blown that it could be 360 degrees. But the next level of that is needing content and engagement that comes at a much more critical level, where people can evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of it.
What are some of your upcoming projects?
We’re doing an interactive doc about the world’s largest windfarm which is being built by GE. We were just in China shooting that doc in VR – that’s with VRSE. We just finished this project with [actor Edward Norton's charity] Crowdrise, with VRSE as well. Then, we are working on another series of projects with ‘Frontline’ in 360-degree video and VR. It’s a big initiative with them. And we have some larger projects combining VR with traditional media. MR