WCSFP ’17: John Ford on navigating chaos; Netflix talks science

Delegates at the 25th anniversary edition of the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers held in San Francisco may be deeply entrenched in the traditional content ecosystem, but are ...
November 30, 2017

Delegates at the 25th anniversary edition of the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers held in San Francisco may be deeply entrenched in the traditional content ecosystem, but are still eager to find out more about the rush of emerging platforms and technologies that are driving change, and to some extent, chaos, within the established order of doing things.

Navigating that chaos and finding opportunity was the central focus of a session moderated by TCB Media Rights founder and CEO Paul Heaney and Hunni Media founder and creative director Bridget Hunnicutt.

Lending a theatrical dimension to the proceedings, speakers John Ford, general manager for NPACT, and Jim Louderback, CEO for VidCon, were trotted out in costumes satirizing their positions within this ecosystem — Ford with a loincloth draped over his clothes and Louderback in a silver space suit.

Theatrics aside, each speaker presented data regarding the current states of both the established cable television sector and the ever-evolving spectrum of new platforms.

Ford, a longtime television executive who, in addition to his work with NPACT heads up programming for multicaster the Justice Network and its soon-to-launch sister net Quest, delivered data that illustrated the downward trending of cable subscription revenues over the past decade, exacerbated in the era of cord-cutting and cord-nevers. Despite that trajectory, Ford maintained that the cable universe won’t “fall off the cliff” but will level off at a numbersignificantly smaller than the heady days when cable TV was the disruptor on the media landscape.

Some smaller networks will be culled, while others may be shifted to digital only — a move that co-panelist Jim Louderback equated with the kiss of death.

Still, for his key takeaways, Ford advised delegates to embrace and understand change while continuing to pursue and preserve their business with linear networks, and while aggressively pursuing the new opportunities arising via SVOD and other distribution platforms.

For his part, Louderback, a veteran of the digital content sphere, dove into the scope of new content players, examining the growth of SVOD and the winners and losers within that space, the explosive impacts of mobile (“a TV in every pocket”) and the emerging generation of creators, who are churning out content filmed with iPhones, edited with apps, and viewed by millions.

Taking a look at some of the top content on Facebook’s nascent Watch platform, Louderback explained how the social media giant measures success via emotional responses, or “liking” a video. Just like television did decades before, the viewing platform itself dictates the form of content — vertical or “square” video rules for Watch and mobile, and many hugely successful mobile videos don’t feature narration, but replace it with text overlay, as mobile users are increasingly “audio agnostic.”

While Ford thought that such content wouldn’t translate across platforms, Louderback asked, “If you’re getting 10 million views on Snapchat, will you care?”

Netflix lifts veil on science wish list

As a further indicator of the turning tides, a session later in the day with Netflix director of original documentary programming, Jason Spingarn-Koff, was filled to overflowing. Not much of a surprise, given the session provided a rare glimpse into the content needs of the streaming behemoth.

Spingarn-Koff, who spearheaded the New York Times‘ Op-Docs program before heading to Netflix, used the session to highlight the streamer’s interest in episodic science content, such as the Bunim/Murray produced Bill Nye Saves the World which is entering a second season, as well as filmmaker-driven projects.

Outlining the key points in the Netflix approach to content, Spingarn-Koff said, “Mainly, what we like to say to producers is let the story determine the form.”

The streamer doesn’t use arbitrary run times, and pitches are welcome at any stage of production. Still, Spingarn-Koff said that “development is not our model.”

Netflix wants globally exclusive rights in perpetuity for its originals, and does not take unsolicited pitches. Furthermore, given that Netflix is a global platform, projects should have a global or international relevance, but the streamer also is keen on regional stories with universal themes.

Spingarn-Koff also used the session to promote upcoming projects, including the feature documentary Mercury 13, looking at the 13 women who went through the same physiological testing as male astronauts for the Project Mercury program. Directed by David Sington and Heather Walsh, it’s not to be confused with several other projects currently underway or in development about the same topic.

The session also highlighted Chasing Coral, helmed by Jeff Orlowski and bought by Netflix at Sundance. The doc, highlighting the calamitous impact of warming oceans on the Great Barrier Reef, was offered as evidence of Netflix’s interest in projects with impact.

The World Congress of Science and Factual Producers continues in San Francisco until Friday, Dec. 1.

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