Outlook 2021: Naked’s Fatima Salaria on post-pandemic content, thinking globally

Few (epidemiologists aside) could have predicted the turbulence of 2020, a year that brought about monumental change — welcome and unwelcome — to the non-scripted screen community, and the world. ...
January 6, 2021

Few (epidemiologists aside) could have predicted the turbulence of 2020, a year that brought about monumental change — welcome and unwelcome — to the non-scripted screen community, and the world. As the novel coronavirus put the TV and film industry on pause, stakeholders across all sectors re-calibrated — as Realscreen covered in ‘Weathering the storm’ — and, as we heard in ‘Back to business,’ returned to the job with a new playbook.

Now, with ‘Outlook,’ Realscreen is turning the page on a difficult year, and looking onward to this year. Here, you’ll hear from execs in various sectors about the challenges and opportunities they foresee for the industry in the year ahead. In this latest edition, we speak to Fatima Salaria, managing director of London-headquartered production outfit Naked (part of Fremantle).

How was 2020 for Naked? What are some of the biggest ways this past year has affected how you operate, for better or worse?  

Fatima Salaria: We started the year by being acquired 100% by Fremantle, joining their impressive list of production labels in the UK.  We also merged with a company, Boundless, all under a newly named Naked brand. We now make The Apprentice, Grand Designs, The Rap Game UK, Planet Sex, and many, many more shows. The bandwidth is phenomenal!

It has been a huge benefit being part of a global company like Fremantle during one of the toughest TV years on record. The financial and logistical stability it offered allowed us to focus on medium- and long-term wins, the big returnable brands of the future, rather than quick COVID-reactive wins with a lockdown theme. We wouldn’t have had that luxury if we were a fly-or-die start-up with two years to make good.

It meant we pushed a record number of things into paid development or pilot and should mean that as normality (hopefully!) resumes next year we come out with a burst of new, colorful and exciting commissions. It sometimes felt strange or abstract to be developing big swings that weren’t even producible at the time — but we always tried to keep one eye on the future, rather than get too boxed in by the day-to-day events of the pandemic. We were always trying to think about what lay on the other side of it all.

What are some of the trends you’re seeing in non-scripted/unscripted content that will be at the forefront in 2021, in your view? 

FS: Crime is still high in demand. But… there’s a thirst for a more white-collared kind of criminal – with people perpetrating cons, financial scams, or more middle-class ne’er do wells. There’s something thrilling about seeing respectable members of society utterly unravel on-screen.

Big, bold, and simple to explain entertainment and fact-ent formats are also resonating brilliantly, and everyone seems to be after them. The truly globally sellable ideas that feel international and universal by nature, with simple titles, are finding a new groove at Netflix and some of the other global streamers. There’s a huge opportunity here for companies that think in an international way.

There are also seems to be — finally — more of a sustained and genuinely meaningful look at weaving diversity into the landscape of core content, post-BLM. We’re seeing and pitching massive fact-ent series that, although they might emerge from the diverse experience, properly resonate with the population at large… People are finally waking up to the fact that there are big numbers in stories from different communities.

How have you been approaching your productions when it comes to safety, particularly amid the UK lockdown, and how are you navigating the added costs of that? 

FS: Those early days were particularly tough. I think we were all doing plans A, B, C, D and Z, which was a joyless process. Production managers were drawing up protocols and guidelines for people whose lives were literally on the line, and that’s a serious weight to shoulder. And the channels, as much as we love them, just didn’t have the answers either. So everyone was just working together on a grand battle plan, constantly sharing intel, being pragmatic and sensible and brave and responding to events with amazing calmness.

Thanks to the hard work of the teams here we managed to keep some of our biggest brands on track.

How optimistic are you that productions will be able to continue at the rate they have been through 2021?  

FS: [This year] is frankly going to be a very exciting time for the non-scripted world providing the vaccine is up and running smoothly.

We already have three or four new projects set to start filming [this month] and I’ve no doubt many other production companies are in the same position — but the real question is, post-pandemic, what’s going to strike a chord and what will the hits be?

There’s a lot of talk about feel-good TV, escapism, travel, happy clappy stuff. A lot of that stuff is rating now. But what will people be wanting to feel in six months? Or 12 months from now? Having gone through — and survived — something of this magnitude together, what will a post-pandemic, post-Brexit, post-BLM country want to watch? Which shows will reflect its values and hopes and dreams? It’s an amazing time to be making TV and with all this change, we will see hits in places we never expected to find them. I’m interested in wholesomeness. The post-pandemic attitude to health. How we’ve changed as we’ve teched up our lives and working patterns even more. We have more family time, but less meaningful interactions with our colleagues, less gossip and more meetings. I’m interested in reflecting and continuing to be part of how we changed our industry on screen and off screen when it comes to fair representation of all and I want to change the culture of how our industry treats each other. These are interesting tensions and utterly new paradigms.

In line with that thought, as well as the pandemic, a lack of diversity in front of and behind the camera in the TV industry was an important conversation in 2020, brought on by the Black Lives Matter movement. How is Naked working to create more diverse and inclusive content?  

FS: It’s baked into everything we do. Every single idea and every single hire. I want to be at the forefront of creating a truly diverse company where the best creative talent can come and be sure they will be heard. I’m not interested in ticking a box, I want authentic stories made by passionate creative people. I don’t want to be dictated to by broadcasters, I want to work hand in hand with them to create the best content for the audience.

We have a handful of schemes internally that are designed to specifically address diversity at a junior level, bringing in fresh voices — not just BAME, but sexuality, class and disability.

We are also looking very closely at the balance of backgrounds and perspectives at a senior level and I am making moves to create dynamism and difference within that too.

There is 100% more to be done — mandatory unconscious bias training is something I’m introducing; we’re also looking at what ideas and concepts we might be missing, by trying to bring those missing perspectives into the fold.

Long term, the goal is to just keep turning this core philosophy up, extending the strong creative, professional and friendly culture here, out to more networks, buyers, and to many many more TV shows.

How will your past experiences in commissioning at the BBC and Channel 4 shape Naked’s output in 2021 and beyond? 

FS: My aim is to bring some of the public service values I learned at those channels — high quality, real representation, complex but not pretentious subject matter — to the world of global streamers.

I firmly believe that there’s a point where value — both intellectual property-wise and societal value — can intersect and spawn hits.

A show like Samuel L Jackson’s Enslaved is the prime example. This has been distributed successfully around the world by Fremantle and where it’s played out, rated exceptionally well — and yet it also, I’d bet, asked some uncomfortable and thought-provoking questions of its viewers. That’s the sweet spot for me. Big, bold, watchable, important content.

Shows catering to a globalized world can take a perspective; they can create a debate or discussion in a household; they can dare to change the world a little bit for the better. The chance to tell a tale to literally billions and billions of people across the world and engage them in new ways of thinking, raise their aspirations or broaden their world view — that’s just an amazing thing to try to do.

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