RS West ’17: Striking gold in the formats business

In the unscripted television landscape, stumbling upon a successful format for the global marketplace can be like striking oil for content creators and buyers alike. That sentiment was top of ...
June 9, 2017

In the unscripted television landscape, stumbling upon a successful format for the global marketplace can be like striking oil for content creators and buyers alike. That sentiment was top of mind at Realscreen West’s “Unscripted International” panel discussion on Thursday (June 8).

In a session moderated by Jane Millichip, managing director of Sky Vision, top level execs Maria Armstrong, CEO and exec producer at Big Coat Productions; Sally Habbershaw, EVP of sales and co-productions for the Americas at All3Media International; and David Eilenberg, president of ITV Entertainment, unpacked the ingredients needed to take a great idea around the world, and examined the creative and business climates currently impacting the global formats business.

Here are a few key take-aways from the session: 

Crime pays… on TV 

Just a little while ago, content creators couldn’t give true crime programs away – advertisers hated it and it would toil away in the doldrums of the late night schedule well after primetime.

But people, ITVE’s Eilenberg theorized, tend to gravitate toward crime stories due to insecurities in culture, and with Brexit, the recent terror attacks in London and Manchester, as well as James Comey’s testimony before the Senate intelligence committee, one needn’t say more.

In addition, “Crime is uniquely good for TV because it’s hard to duplicate crime storytelling on a mobile phone in a two-minute video,” Eilenberg said. “Everything from news to sports to comedy is being hurt by the fact that digital platforms are, in some cases, much better for ingestion of that kind of content.

“I can’t imagine a way to do a real crime story on those new platforms, so I think our traditional TV platforms are gravitating toward [crime].”

There is also abundant opportunity for all types of budgets and storytelling within the crime genre, with further opportunity to have your program aired across broadcast television, cable or SVOD.

Please everyone by opening the backend

Big Coat’s Armstrong explained that if creators are producing Canadian content within Canada, the producers have to own the intellectual property. Big Coat, for instance, still owns the worldwide IP for Love It or List It. And though it may be difficult for some broadcasters to accept, there are certain mutually beneficial things that can be done.

“Broadcasters really need to look at bringing in their producer and giving them a fair share of the backend and keeping the longevity there,” Armstrong explained. “When we first did our deal in Canada with Corus Entertainment, we gave them 50% of the backend of our show. They kept that show on the air for five seasons – we’re now 350 episodes in, with two local spin-offs – they got a piece of action, we got piece of action, everybody was happy. That’s the reason why I think it was so successful.”

Elsewhere, All3Media is in quite a luxurious position as it owns and has first-look into 26 production companies, the majority of which are in the UK. As such, All3 formats are effectively tested within British borders.

“It’s much easier to bring it to market once it’s seen success in the UK, so the ownership model is easier to retain if you’ve got ownership elsewhere,” noted All3Media International’s Habbershaw.

Approaching tightening margins

There’s no question that margins are being squeezed in the U.S. market and what that leads to is more companies making up for those thinning margins with scale.

“For international companies like ours, you look towards the Netherlands, the UK, Canada and places where intellectual property rights are better enshrined and see whether there are ways to start franchises there even if they originate [in the U.S.],” said ITV Entertainment’s Eilenberg.

“It’s an interesting time and one of the things that may happen is you’ll see a new wave of deficit financiers enter the market to actually come pay that 30% for reasons that we’re not necessarily used to.”

Final food for thought

“Having come from a network background, it’s really important to have corporate culture that celebrates success and failure because if you repeat failures then the creative teams are going to lose their inspiration and you’re ultimately not going to deliver the result you want,” said Habbershaw.

“With creative teams you can’t set boundaries. In most casts the 9-5 doesn’t work. It’s really important from a network point of view to institutionalize a very different work routine.”

Added Armstrong: “From a producers point of view, we don’t look at failures as failures, we look at them as lessons. You Take those lessons and we do what we can not to repeat those lessons but to learn from them. We never throw an idea out – it may not be working at that time, it may need more work, we may put it on the backburner and drag it out again, but research when you’re walking into a broadcaster is the most important thing. Do your research to know what you’re pitching.”

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