Realscreen Summit: Unscripted model needs shake up

No one on the stage at Realscreen Summit’s opening panel Monday (Jan. 23) was arguing with the central theme of the afternoon’s discussion – that the state of unscripted nation ...
January 24, 2017

No one on the stage at Realscreen Summit’s opening panel Monday (Jan. 23) was arguing with the central theme of the afternoon’s discussion – that the state of unscripted nation in 2017 is “under pressure.”

The past year has seen rifts grow between networks and production over ownership of IP and production budgets, with the divide further fueled by uncertainty over the future of television as a whole as a new generation of slick digital content brands and legions of young cable-cutters sweep onto the global scene.

But despite tensions between the two sides, panelists – including NPA’s John Ford, Critical Content CEO Tom Forman, PactUS’s David Lyle, FYI programming exec Gena McCarthy, Scripps Networks Interactive chief programmer Kathleen Finch, and Lisa Williams-Fauntroy SVP of business and legal at Discovery Communications –  were all in agreement that now is the time for industry players to get creative behind the scenes and find new and better ways to collaborate on everything from maximizing production dollars to finding efficiencies in how shows are ordered and put together.

“It’s about collaboration, conversation and transparency,” said Williams-Fauntroy of finding a way forward.

Producers on stage agreed, though Lyle cautioned, “For a healthy eco-system, there has to be health on both sides.”

Forman, whose company is behind House vs. House and Unlivable, said it was encouraging to hear a call for collaboration from network execs. He said it was time to ditch the industry norm of producers receiving a 10% profit margin in a time of constricting budgets and smaller margins.

“I would rather be incentivized by my success. I understand the network point of view when they say ‘I pay you 10% whether the show works or not and that doesn’t seem right to me.’ You don’t share in your hits because I subsidize your failures,” he said.

Lyle said that production companies are dealing with smaller margins, noting the 10% profit margin has been seriously eroded. In reality, he said, “it’s 5%, sometimes down to 3% and companies can’t sustain that way.”

The sticky point of IP ownership was also raised by panelists – an issue that made headlines (and waves) in the industry in 2016 prompted by the ongoing lawsuit between LMNO and Discovery  – with those on the production side voicing their continued unease over the potential of losing shows to networks after they’ve landed big audiences.

Some companies have a template where no one gets locked in, even companies that they might have worked with for years they have developed and created to that point but a producer will not be locked into that show, said Lyle.

Ford agreed with Lyle, saying it’s very scary for producers to develop that IP and have that network who fund it say “I’m going to give it someone else, that’s a turn off.”

For networks, Finch said the IP issue is not a cost issue, but one of accountability. The concern is the companies don’t want to be beholden to something they have no control over, so often networks prefer a more flexible model that might include incentives such as bonuses, rather than a lock-in model.

Finch also put voice to an uncomfortable truth in the current eco-system, noting, “the reality is it’s a buyers market.”

She stressed that networks and producers have to figure out how to make the system work for those who want to work. At Scripps, she said the company likes to work with producers who want to negotiate, collaborate, who are not steadfast about the 10% margin, or all rights,  recognizing the model has changed for everyone.

“It’s a sobering reality, there are thousands of young people with cameras who call themselves production companies, and some of them are really good. The reality is that the business is going to change dramatically because certain groups know how to make high-quality content for little money,” she said.

With the LMNO-Discovery case hanging over the panel, Ford said network and production companies have become too adversarial in negotiations. He said there should be a focus on shared success, which might foster a knock-out hit, which is something he hasn’t seen in a while.

McCarthy said both producers and networks rise together with any success. At FYI, she stressed, “we love finding new producers, while also producing with our proven hitmakers. It’s just a balance of how we work.”

With the volume of programming offered to audiences, moderator Cynthia Littleton, managing editor, Television Variety, asked about the pressure to find new and provocative concepts as a way to stand out and get people talking.

Forman said it’s daunting, as so little works right now, but, he added, producers do have to think about what not only makes noise but the execution of the idea.

McCarthy said that finding proactive ideas isn’t new. Rather, that has always been an approach. When she previously worked with Ford at TLC, she noted, his vision was “proactive concept, credible treatment” and that is the how she still thinks about programming at FYI today.

“It’s my job and my team’s job to make sure content is entertaining and smart. That’s not new, but we have to hold ourselves to high standards of delivery.”

(Photo by Rahoul Ghose)

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