By Clive Whittingham 25-01-2021
Unscripted buyers, sellers and producers discussed development costs, reviving classic formats and their strategies for 2021 at the digital version of Natpe Miami.
The Miami and New Orleans double header in January 2020 was my last international trip with C21 before the world fell apart, so it was difficult not to get slightly wistful watching this year’s digital-only version of Natpe Miami on an iPad back on snow-covered, plague-ravaged Brexit Island. Oh for a time when our biggest concerns were long queues at check-in, wind cancelling roof parties and trying to talk your way into Soho House.
There’s a lot of talk of “bullishness” abounding from execs as they look to put 2020 behind them and attack 2021 with renewed vigour. But as I often write, PRs wouldn’t be putting their clients up for interview and panel sessions if they were having a bad time of it. Amidst the optimism – faux and genuine – it is worth taking stock of how different the world and our industry is one year on from the first mumbled, down-bulletin news items about some mysterious respiratory illness emerging from a Wuhan wet market.
Literally everything in television has changed. The way we produce shows, sell, finance, pitch and edit them, post-production, distribution – everything along every step of the process is different now to how it was when we were last sunning ourselves in Miami Beach a year ago. Everyone is in a different position, be they a streamer that has seen subscriptions soar across a locked-down population, pay TV and commercial broadcasters that have seen cash-strapped punters and advertisers slash investment in their business, or embattled public broadcasters feeling the love from their renewed importance.
Elaine Frontain Bryant, executive VP and head of programming at US cablenet A&E, has had more challenges than most, not only coping with all of the above but also losing the network’s biggest show, Live PD, which had come to dominate its Friday and Saturday primetime schedules, in controversial circumstances.
“Across the world at large the news is drawing more viewers. Add that to losing one of our biggest shows and we’re rebuilding viewership in this moment,” Frontain Bryant told a panel of unscripted execs at Natpe on Friday afternoon. “Viewers want some kind of involvement they’re not getting from the news, and escapism can happen in different ways, be it crime shows, clip shows or something else. We’re in a rebuilding phase and it’s been a challenging time.”
Frontain Bryant was more cagey on what that a rebuild might look like. “I wasn’t looking for a scientology show when I did Leah Remini: Scientology & the Aftermath. I wasn’t looking for a live police show when Live PD happened, or a jail show for 60 Days In, but I knew all of these subjects had a kernel of something that would fire people up.
“What’s old is new. We are looking at things that have worked in the past and how we innovate. Live PD said a lot about transparency of policing; it’s one of a few things we have done that has mattered a lot. How do we go classic and innovate in a way that anchors people and is a comfort but also tells a story that is resonant for today?”
For Tim Crescenti, president of indie formats firm Small World IFT, which brought Grandpas Over Flowers from South Korea to the global market, the horrors of 2020 have brought about three key changes to the business moving into 2021. The first is the erosion of the traditional US work-for-hire model, where one commissioning broadcaster takes all the rights to a show. The second is the importance of volume over more limited series and the third is scouting for new formats from around the world when you can’t physically travel there.
“People wanting total control over everything, total IP, that went out of the window over the past year. We have to work together, be that through coproductions or sponsorships and branded content, like Fox’s commission of the Cherries Wild gameshow with Pepsi,” Crescenti explained.
“It’s great to hit a home run but it’s a great business hitting doubles. We focus on fish-out-of-water shows like Better Late Than Never, but you put all that effort into shows for two or three seasons of eight episodes each and it’s done. We are revisiting high-volume, studio-based shows. It’s great to have a show like that, an arcing two or three seasons on a network. But if you can get Wheel of Fortune, which is 195 episodes a year and in 125 countries, that’s a better business model for us.
“We announced a first-look deal with MGM last summer, which was about [getting] boots on the ground in areas people don’t find shows because they don’t travel. Suddenly, the main advantage you have of travelling – like being in South Korea and stumbling upon Grandpas Over Flowers – [is lost]. From a creative standpoint it’s been exhausting, talking online to people around the world about what they’ve got.”
A big point of concern for producers and distributors at Natpe last week was the escalating costs of development at a time when already challenged budgets and profit margins are likely to be squeezed still further. Cablenets, in particular, have worked hard in recent years to distinguish their brands from one another, but that, in turn, is making it more difficult to develop a show that can be pitched to multiple buyers.
“The days of developing a show and taking it out to eight buyers is over. Our mantra is if you have a show that suits eight buyers, you don’t have a show at all,” said Phil Gurin, co-creator of The Singing Bee and president and CEO of The Weakest Link producer The Gurin Company.
It was a theme picked up by Bruce David Klein, president and exec producer of Hotel Impossible producer Atlas Media, who said: “There have been a lot of gripes in the past year that the cost of development for production companies and networks is unsustainable. It used to be a higher yield; if you developed 100, 10 would get a pilot and sizzle orders and one or two would go to series. That ratio has become much more dire over time. Those who can develop clever, smart, cheap ideas with a high yield are going to be in the best position.
“It’s gone from male development and female development, History, Nat Geo and Discovery in one group, Lifetime, We TV and TLC in another group, to being much more narrow and specific. It narrowed to, ‘We only do 18-34 female’ and then it went beyond demographics to, ‘We’re looking for things that celebrate basic values.’ It’s become so specific.”
This is creating a role near the start of the process for distributors to come in with funding to get a show moving, in exchange for some international rights down the track. But as Rachel Job, senior VP of non-scripted content at All3Media International, pointed out, even that model isn’t foolproof in the age of deep-pocketed streamers.
“Buyers are becoming more niche and more focused on their brand and what they need, but it does mean you have to develop a completely different show for each buyer. You can’t work it up and have three places to take it,” Job confirmed.
“We’re supporting producers by funding development ourselves in exchange for a piece of international distribution. We’ve funded shows before that have gone on to be bought by Netflix, and we’re fine with that. You’ve got a great buyer for your show, just give us the development money back, and they’re happy to do that. We’re in that ecosystem in a way you might not expect. I can see it’s difficult for producers.”
The new ways of doing business have helped save on development costs elsewhere, however. Frank Sinton, chief operating officer of Tinopolis and president of A Smith & Co, is working up a series with a talent from Africa his company first became aware of through a Ted Talk.
“We’ve been able to do a pitch with this guy from South Africa using Zoom and existing tape, with a network in New York,” he said. “In the pre-Covid world we probably would have brought him out, filmed a sizzle, set up meetings in New York, at a cost of US$50-75,000. Now we can do it in a Zoom meeting and potentially get an offer within hours because he’s so great. I’m curious to see, post-Covid, if we can still pitch things that way or if we will revert back.”
Leftfield sources for IP are also front of mind for Laura Michalchyshyn, chief creative officer and co-president of Canada’s Blue Ant Studios. “I have my team members listening to every podcast,” she said. “It’s all about IP. Who is creating content that we maybe haven’t thought of before? I talk to the 20-year-olds in my team about what they are watching and who they’re listening to. We will go down paths of interesting IP we would not previously have considered before because it’s not a platform we are developing in but we’re going to take it over.
“We’re in the middle of post-production on a big documentary series for a streamer and my biggest challenge is misunderstandings between the directors, field team and editor. We have to keep getting on Zoom to clarify one or two ideas. I miss being in an office where you can run to your editor, story producers, post teams. The exhaustion of setting up Zooms to clarify and reiterate, nobody needs it. It’s not the best use of time.”
As vaccines start to provide a route back to Miami a year from now, perhaps the most interesting question about 2021 will be which parts of television’s old way of doing things will come back and which will be replaced by the ‘new normal’ that has been forced upon us. And what sort of a hybrid business will we be left with at the end.