by Carl Mrozek
I recently attended the 20th annual Real Screen Summit in Washington D.C. This mid-winter convocation has become the pre-eminent gathering of buyers, distributors and producers of reality TV, documentaries and other non-fiction programming in the Americas. Consequently, it also attracts hundreds of producers working in these genres eager to distribute finished or nearly finished programs, and to pre-sell projects in varying stages of development.
I met producers from all over the country, Canada and everywhere in between, plus Europe and Asia. Altogether there were over 1500 registered attendees, only down slightly from 2017’s record high. While the majority of these were producers, a substantial percentage represented broadcasters, cable channels, NGOs and government agencies, online services and an ever-increasing OTT contingent. In contrast to TV, OTT is essentially VOD (video on demand) –but in large bundles, primarily on a subscription basis. In practical terms, it refers to Netflix, YouTube and the newcomers like Amazon, Facebook and Apple.
For many producers at Real Screen, the rise of OTT distribution presents an opportunity, a new marketplace for finished programs, while for many others — including many established producers, it's a mixed blessing blending new opportunities with challenges to current markets.
For many in TV, the rise of OTT is perceived as a threat in a world of finite advertising dollars, when actually OTT is increasing share of the advertising pie comes at their expense.
Rising Competition in the OTT Space
“Netflix, Amazon and etc. have transformed the TV landscape. Barely a decade or so ago, the TV marketplace was expanding and so were advertising and production budgets. With the rise of OTT, TV channels’ share of advertising is shrinking, along with their staffs and production budgets,” said veteran Michael Cascio, CEO, M&C Media and moderator of, ‘View From the Corner Office’. “Today, there’s more reluctance to take risks on new shows, formats or producers. Even senior producers have to do more with less,” he added.
One reaction to this new competition, according to Cascio, is increasing consolidation and the merger of large media companies into behemoths. A prime example is the recently announced merger of Discovery Communications and the Scripps Network. While this offers savings in staffing and administration, merging different corporate cultures, and audiences poses challenges too. “Discovery tends to be a hit-driven channel whose ratings and revenue may fluctuate wildly depending on what hit programs they have at a given time. Scripps audience for lifestyle programming tends to be more consistent, without the wild oscillations. Merging those two corporate cultures will be challenging.” Cascio said.
Another question on the minds of many TV executives at Real Screen was how to stand out in an increasingly crowded media landscape.
Developing Programming for Streaming
“At Nat Geo Productions we’re returning to our roots by focusing on exploration, nature, science and world cultures. We’re doing fewer programs but doing them better, while trying to be relevant to life today. A prime example is our Isis doc, ‘Hell on Earth’ which required lots of research and risks. Likewise, we spent 2 +years obtaining the clearances and access needed to make “Chain of Command’, about our 17 years in Afghanistan. We’re also utilizing celebrities where appropriate, like commissioning Katie Couric to do a mini-series on ‘The Gender Revolution’ around the world. We also hired Leonardo DiCaprio to host “Before The Flood” to augment the audience for a discussion on climate change.” he explained.
To further maximize audience Pastore offered it royalty-free to Amazon and Hulu. "The payoff was 63 million viewers, including-32 million on TV alone. Both were much larger than they would have been on cable alone and were well worth any lost revenues," he said. Nat Geo plans to keep experimenting with new distribution models according to Pastore.
The Challenges of OTT
Mark Juris, general manager of WE-TV expressed a contrarian perspective on the Post-OTT World panel. “WE-TV has a consistent point of view in all our shows, which makes them work really well on TV. However, many unscripted shows have a fairly short shelf life and aren’t ideal for streaming, even some of our hit shows like Bridezillas,” he said.
Amazon Channels’ head of acquisition Richard Au elaborated, “Many types of shows do well for us in North America. Soon we’ll be in the UK and Germany too. The rights landscape is very different in Europe so we have to negotiate separately with each nation. For us at Amazon, fresh content is critical as it attracts new eyeballs that we can market to. We’re a great outlet for premium content,” he added. Amazon also aims to make it easier for viewers to access the programs they like to watch. “Just finding titles is challenging now. We’re using new algorithms to drive personalization and our enhanced metadata makes that easier and faster to do,“ he added.
While cable channels were defining and defending their brands from various threats including the OTT revolution, the brand identity of the big OTT players are still in flux according to panelists like David George, president of ITV America. “Netflix wants to be like a cable network with many different channels. But they’re kind of secretive, which makes it tough to know exactly what they want. Facebook seems somewhat more open but they’re still evolving. Amazon aspires to be HBO and only wants premium programming. Overall though OTT is opening doors to new programming approaches for the US and global producers,” he observed. At same time many cable channels seem to be responding to the OTT challenge by being more risk-averse and sticking with the tried & true. “That’s partly why we’re re-branding and re-launching Queer Eye For the Straight Guy,” he added.
How do you monetize great shows?
However, the active presence of ever more reps of OTT distributors caused a certain amount of consternation among many TV execs and also among their preferred producers. They expressed concern in the face of uncertainty over how the deep pockets and unconventional business model of the new digital titans might impact their ad and subscription-based, appointment viewing model. “There is a lot of fear out there today. The biggest challenge isn’t making great shows but how to monetize them in this shifting media marketplace,” said John Ford GM of NPACT.
“It’s kind of a two-headed monster that can eat you if you’re not careful. But all of us producers here are all adults and we can deliver programs of various lengths and styles that people will want to watch, on different platforms,” said Tom Forman, CEO of Critical Content.
Brent Montgomery, CEO, ITV America concurred. “Today it’s like the Tale of Two Cities; the best of times and the worst of times. There is downward pressure on budgets and producers. But, there are also more opportunities than ever. You can produce 8-minute shorts for Facebook or up to 2-hour shows for cable. There are more outlets for more kinds of programs than ever, as long as you can make the numbers work,” Montgomery’s new production company, Wheelhouse, will have several divisions dealing with different sectors of the media landscape, with the main focus one still being unscripted. “We’re open to working to work with small independents with great stories and talent, but who also bring unique access and intellectual property to the table,” he added.
Pitching Shows to Cable Execs
Cable execs on multiple panels had plenty advice for producers pitching their ideas. “Be sure you know our channels before you pitch us. We don’t want to hear pitches for generic food, travel or home improvement shows. Program pitches should be fresh, unique and right for us. Be sure you know our program schedule beforehand.” said Kathleen Finch, chief of Programming & Brand for Scripps Networks.
Timing can make all the difference. “When we pitched Pawnstars to History, it wasn’t particularly geared for them. They had nothing like it on their schedule then, but luckily we caught them on a pivot, and they gave it a shot. That was years ago and it’s still a hit on the History Channel today,” Montgomery added. That was music to the ears of the many small independent producers at Real Screen 2018, all hoping for a similar break despite long odds.
“At Lifetime, we’re always looking for compelling, authentic human stories, and try to be open-minded. We’ll take pitches from small independents, but it helps to partner with a producer that we already know well. But we’re open to new voices too.” said Liz Gately, EVP & head of programming at Lifetime.
The Grand Finale: The Pitch-off
For the tenth consecutive year, Real Screen concluded its penultimate day of sessions with a competitive pitch-off. Six finalists targeted National Geographic TV and WE-TV. The payoff for 2 winners was a $20,000 development deal with WE-TV and the other with Nat Geo TV – depending on whom they pitched.
One of the two grand prizes, the $20k development deal with WE-TV was awarded to Bolton Curley, of Bolton Media in Atlanta, GA. Curley’s lifestyle series Women of the World (WOW), follows three African and American women as they shuttle back and forth between a future-focused American life in Atlanta GA and a more tradition-bound life in Lagos, Nigeria, all while juggling their entrepreneurial dreams, family responsibilities and romance on both continents. Curley’s characters are all smart, strong women leading dynamic lives with myriad potential plot turns as their lives unfold before us.
“I want to bring to the screen strong professional African-American women whose lives intertwine on two continents and who can influence the lives of other women for the better, ”said Bolton Curley.
The other Grand Prize a $20,000 development deal with National Geographic was awarded to Michael Holstein of The Content Farm, for an 8 x 60-minute series Shishmaref Is Melting. The series explores the human drama triggered by climate change. The story features the 421 residents of Shishmaref, Alaska, whose town is threatened by rising sea levels.
“This story presents climate change as a ticking time bomb threatening to literally inundate an entire coastal village, as sea levels rise in the Arctic. The image of a house sliding down a reinforced embankment into the sea is all you need to get hooked as the series captures a visual progression of impending doom,” exclaimed Nat Geo’s VP of development, Charlie Parsons. “What we aim to do is to depoliticize climate change, by finding a back entrance into the discussion that engages viewers. We don’t want to bore people by getting too preachy or pedantic about the science of it. Instead, we want to put human faces on it,” Holstein added. “The back door is meeting the people, learning about their culture through their stories and hopefully making us care about them and how climate change is ruining their lives.”