WCSFP ’20: Media execs, Bill Gates sound notes of optimism for 2021

The 2020 digital edition of World Congress of Science & Factual Producers kicked off today (Dec. 8) with a panel exploring ideas, content and technology that could create the biggest ...
December 9, 2020

The 2020 digital edition of World Congress of Science & Factual Producers kicked off today (Dec. 8) with a panel exploring ideas, content and technology that could create the biggest trends for 2021 and beyond.

The panel began with a short introduction from moderator Sam Barcroft (pictured center), former Barcroft Studios founder and CEO, who stressed that the conversation would focus on optimism.

“There has been a huge uptick in TV watching in 2020, and there is a new content war between the new SVODs,” Barcroft said. “Supply has been disrupted and therefore demand for valuable content is sky high.

“For factual producers and distributors 2021 may turn out to be a ‘phoenix from the flames’ moment.”

Panelists on the session included Bill Gardner (bottom left), VP programming and development at PBS; Nadine Zylstra, head of kids, family & learning at YouTube Originals; Adam Hawkins, U.S. creative director at Raw; and Olivier Jollet, SVP of emerging business at ViacomCBS Networks EMEA.

Zylstra was first to outline how she approaches commissions for YouTube Originals, emphasizing that the organization’s mission is to enable anyone to easily share their story.

“I think the key is how well does [the series] fit our platform? If you bring me a documentary that has an extraordinary YouTuber and has the ethos of YouTube – it’s positive, it’s youthful – then we’ll pay the amount of money we need to, to make a great show,” she explained. “It’s got to match YouTube, otherwise it’s not a fit.”

She pointed to Dear Class of 2020, which served as an ode to the graduating class of 2020, and functioned as an avenue to provide meaningful content to the public when it was most needed.

“We’ll be thinking about that a lot in 2021, continuing to be there for what people need in the moment they need it,” Zylstra said.

Meanwhile, Gardner explained that while there is an overwhelming amount of choice regarding content, PBS manages to stay front of mind by remaining differentiated and focusing on what he calls “spherical content.”

“The way I look at programs is like a sphere. What’s the project, and what are all the nodes that come off it to impact people in the ways you want them to be impacted?”

Since its founding in 2013, Pluto TV has grown to become the largest free-TV streaming service in the world, attracting more than 36 million users across the 24 countries it services.

ViacomCBS’s Jollet stressed the ad-free service’s vision is to build a new TV landscape for the digital audience.

“When we talk channels, we’re talking about 24/7 channels. There’s a programming team at Pluto sitting and deciding what should be running at 3 p.m. on these specific channels,” he said. “We’re doing live TV and creating new linear channels for a digital landscape.”

Pluto TV is open to all genres and serves as “a great platform” for producers with a large content library and shows that have yet to be monetized. The digital brand, Jollet added, is also willing to create events and stunts around certain top-quality programs as the company has consistently found a thriving audience for those series.

Bolstering those events are advertising revenues and Pluto sees a fast-growing evolution to its Connected TV (CTV) business.

“We didn’t see a decrease in the CTV invest during COVID while the whole ad world was falling down,” Jollet said. “A lot of big clients decided to cancel their TV campaigns, but then went to CTV where they can control what audience they reach. Saying that, we can reverse more revenues to our partners and we’re building something that’s fair for everybody.”

Asked whether there is a future in which Pluto commissions originals, Jollet said, “I would say never say no.”

Raw’s Hawkins, the only producer on the panel, ended things off the way things began – optimistically – with the proclamation that premium factual is alive and thriving thanks in part to punchy short-run series.

He argued that to retain subscribers, streamers cannot continuously spend millions of dollars on scripted tentpoles. Instead, they must suss out programming that’s both cheaper and just as effective.

“Streamers want something that everyone talks about for a month, and then they want something else,” Hawkins noted. “There’s a hunger to have those very short, very spikey, not too expensive big hits that keep people talking about the service.”

The downside, he acknowledged, is that producers will be forced to win numerous more short-run commissions, which therefore means a larger investment in development. Conversely, Hawkins predicts the playing field will level with an uptick in short-run series to the point where the mega-indies will find it more difficult to compete.

“It will make just as much sense to partner with a small indie as it does a big one for a three-part documentary,” he said.

“If you can give up on being obsessed with keeping IP and give up the idea of having a 10th season, it is a great time for a factual producer because you get big budgets, bigger audiences and there’s more room for creativity.”

Also during yesterday’s Congress program, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates took part in a keynote interview to discuss global responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and international efforts to create vaccines.

Interviewed by Dr. Mercy Korir, health and science editor for Kenya’s The Standard Group, Gates also sounded a note of optimism, predicting that with the manufacturing and roll-out of various COVID-19 vaccines over the course of 2021, at some point next year and into 2022, “we can get largely back to normal.” Still, for an audience composed primarily of producers of science and factual content, the challenge will be in effectively communicating the need for vaccinations, especially in an era when misinformation — politically motivated and otherwise — is so widely disseminated.

“I’m surprised at all the conspiracy theories… the scale of it is a bit scary,” offered Gates, who is the focal point of a few conspiracy theories himself. Noting the ease through which such content can spread via social media and digital platforms, he remarked, “I’m hopeful that the digital tools can get the truth out as well as they have gotten these conspiracy theories out.”

Slated to take place in Strasbourg, France in early December, WCSFP was in July forced to move its physical event online due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.

The digital conference runs until December 10.

(With files from Barry Walsh)

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.