Realscreen West ’17: NPA’s John Ford on top issues for producers

Between budgets, production processes and OTT domination, there are a lot of challenges facing producers worldwide these days. Ahead of Realscreen West, June 6 to 8 at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows ...
May 1, 2017

Between budgets, production processes and OTT domination, there are a lot of challenges facing producers worldwide these days. Ahead of Realscreen West, June 6 to 8 at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows in Santa Monica, we caught up with John Ford, general manager of the Nonfiction Producers Association (NPA), to breakdown the issues and topics he thinks will be top of mind for 2017 attendees.

Heading into Realscreen West, what are three main issues or areas of concern that you think producers are hoping to discuss?

I think the challenges in getting through many of the processes of production will continue to dominate the conversation, because those issues strike at the heart of everyone’s livelihood.. So we can anticipate more discussion on the challenges for producers, things like fee and rate erosion – which speak to budgets and profit margins – and the declining quality and slow pace of the development process. I think we’ll also find producers want to talk about ways they can stay creative while dealing with all the operational and service aspects of the business. Creativity is certainly why most producers got into this industry and that will always be top of mind.

What are other hot topics you expect to hear about from attendees this year?

I think the OTT sector is on a lot of producers’ minds, both the big established players like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, and some of the smaller, lesser-know digital services. The latter are starting to put up real money for network-level projects and it’s stirring interest among producers. I also hear a lot of talk about “creativity” – how are we going to continue to catalyze it in an increasingly tight economic climate? It’s the lifeblood of our industry and people are worried about how we sustain it.

How are the major OTT services like Netflix, Hulu, Snap, etc. affecting the business, and what is the draw – and the downside – for the industry?

The rise of the OTT sector creates opportunities outside the traditional network business that are now much more financially feasible. OTT is more robust than before, and digital delivery services are starting to pay market rate, and so those are bright spots for producers. Producers are also responding positively to the speed of the OTT deals. Some are reminiscent of the days when networks were buying programming “in the room,” which meant you’d be off and running into pre-production, production and then air in a relatively short time frame. That was the mechanism through which many young scrappy entrepreneurs were able to build businesses that now create and supply the majority of unscripted content on television. This is a relatively new marketplace, and we don’t know how it’s going to mature. It also has downsides, like not knowing how your show is doing on Netflix, for example. So it has to evolve.

With budget, costs and other operational issues taking so much of the spotlight, what is the status of creativity in the industry and do you think that spirit is being threatened in the current atmosphere?

I think, frankly, this is one of the reasons producers come to Realscreen West. Most of the time they have their heads down, managing staff, productions, budgets, swatting flies. Amidst the day to day of the business you forget to look around. These kinds of events often galvanize the creative community and can even inspire a kind of “reset.” We’re all looking for the next big reality hit. What I worry about is this: Is the current, restrictive, cost-oriented conversation going to unleash the creative power we need to produce those hits? And is cost myopia preventing us from seeing the breakout shows we need? Creativity must always be the driving force, and there’s no question producers have to find ways to rise above other concerns that can threaten it.

How important would you say the entrepreneurial spirit is to unscripted television and the content business in general?

The entrepreneurial spirit is the industry; it’s as defining as any other characteristic. These are risk-takers — people who stick their necks out by nature, for better or worse. Even inside larger corporate structures, the producers are people who incline toward the new and untested, and that’s essential for producing the next big hit.

In what ways do you think the industry has changed from say one year ago? Five years ago? What aspects do you think the industry needs to be prepped for change going forward?

Look at the penetration of cable networks and how it’s declined since 2012 – not a pretty picture when you go from 98 million to 92 million homes. At the same time, those networks have been growing abroad and now can sell their programming over the top (OTT), through iTunes, to Netflix or any place else. They’ve lost in one area and gained in several others. What’s the net? I don’t know, but I do know the revenue blend has changed and will continue to evolve. Producers need to understand and adapt to that.

John Ford serves as general manager of the Nonfiction Producers Association (NPA), a professional body created to represent the non-fiction content production business in the U.S., since July 2015. Launched in 2014, the NPA’s membership currently includes 50 U.S. production companies. Ford has held senior executive positions at Discovery Channel and National Geographic. In January 2015, Ford and a team of partners launched Justice Network, a digital multicast network devoted to true-crime programming. He remains head of programming at Justice.

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