Is It Harder To Buy Or To Sell? The Documarket’s Reel Story

By Bob Jenkins

Marian Williams, vp, programming, Discovery Europe, was unequivocal: "The job of buying documentaries," she asserted, "is getting much harder." She ascribed this change to "so much programming being pre-bought as part of the funding process, and fewer and fewer people making programming 'on spec'." The result," she claimed, "is that it is very rare to come across new programming you haven't already heard about."

The prevalence of co-production in the documentary genre complicates life for producers as well as buyers, according to Richard Clemmow, head of factual at TWI. "There is an increasing demand," he noted, "for shows that use a presenter who really works for the particular territory." This creates obvious difficulties, which, said Clemmow, "are compounded in the area of 'landmark' series by high expectations, especially where the use of cutting edge computer-generated imaging (CGI) is concerned, pushing the budget to a level where very complicated finance packages have to be structured."

Ann Julienne, head of acquisitions and co-productions at France 5, believes these complex landmark series are becoming more common, and noted that "recently there has been a trend toward high-end programming following a number of years during which the acquisitions market was inundated with trashy, low-budget programming made for cable channels." While upping her level of acquisitions in preparation for the French switch to digital on March 31(when France 5 goes 24 hours), Julienne has found that, "acquisition has become harder over the past few years due to increased competition in the French market." Larry Higgs, president of U.S.-based TeleProductions International, echoed the thought on the other side of the Atlantic: "There are more outlets cropping up right now, with satellite platforms that offer documentaries."

Discovery Europe has also recognized the crowded nature of Europe's broadcast market. Marian Williams added, "The only significant change in our buying over the past 12 months has been that we are looking more for factual entertainment formats, and, as such, are prepared to consider taking a second window after terrestrial."

The aforementioned crowding is welcomed by Stephanie Rockmann-Portier, vice president, sales and head of factual at Alliance Atlantis, who said, "there is a real and growing opportunity for the sale of documentaries," a situation she attributed to, "the growing number of channel launches, especially in Eastern Europe." Although, she believes that "the key to all markets is to have a wide range of programming capable of meeting a wide range of needs, especially in the case of niche channels, which tend to want to buy in volume, and terrestrial channels, which more frequently want to buy one-offs for existing branded slots." As an example, Rockmann-Portier cited Alliance's series Turning Points in History, "which lends itself to one-off sales to terrestrials but is also available as a ready-made slot for niche channels that want to buy in bulk."

British distributor All3Media factual acquisitions exec, Lucy Dawkins, said, "Terrestrial stations are specifically interested in big-budget pieces employing impressive visual aids like CGI; and highly promotable 'event' style documentaries have been shown to generate a lot of interest. The sectors where I see a lot to be excited about are cable and satellite. Most of these channels are focused on niche audiences and programs appealing to a specific demographic are more in demand. This increase has been necessitated by tighter budgets, coupled with the challenge of hundreds of hours of air-time to fill."

However, Carla Bruce, director, acquisitions and sales, French-speaking Canada at Filmoption, pointed to a whole other problem within her territory. "Looking to acquire quality documentaries for French Canada with an international slant is difficult, particularly as they have to appeal to our [French-Canadian] viewers and have to be dubbed or subtitled into French," she explained.

Sue Kerr, international director, video at BBC Worldwide, identified volume as another potential issue in the video market. "Some markets, especially in Europe, still need volume, and often want a certain length, and/or number, of parts," observed Kerr, "whereas others, like Japan, can take single documentaries, as long as they can be put together in a boxed set."

*Anna Martin contributed to this story

Alison Baker of Australia's Southern Star Int'l Talks Docs

VideoAge: How much easier or harder is it now to market documentaries?

Alison Baker: The documentary market has been changing for some time. There is certainly less appetite for the straightforward wildlife documentary, and broadcasters are now seeking not only great pictures, but also strong storylines. Viewers are savvy and want to see the standard of story they find in a drama reflected within their documentary viewing.

Mainstream terrestrial channels are seeking product that is different from the offerings found on dedicated documentary channels such as National Geographic, and wishing to see greater home market customization within documentaries.

Documentaries offer less of a distribution market than they did five years ago; the economics of the genre and market often require the piecing together of financing from several broadcasters [particularly] on the big event programs - watch the credit sequence next time you tune in.

VA: Why do you think this is?

AB: In the continual drive for ratings and [by extension], advertising revenue, there is a demand for more entertainment-driven shows that will appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Wildlife shows have to have a hook or innovative story-telling to attract and engage a wider audience. Audiences love to see celebrities.

VA: In what ways have the requirements of the international market changed, and in what ways are they continuing to evolve?

AB: The global cable and satellite channels are really looking to be involved in projects from an early stage. To help build a strong identity for the channel, one of their requirements is for presenter-led programming [with] strong personalities who the audience will immediately associate with that network. However, for international distribution, presenter-led programs can sometimes be a barrier for the foreign language market. The global channels are more interested in commissions rather than acquisitions for this very need. There is a focus on commissioning or acquiring for as many of their feeds as possible; obviously this delivers economy of scale and encourages global brand building.

VA: Which international markets are currently strongest, and which the weakest?

AB: The global cable and satellite networks are our major clients on a commissioning/pre-sale basis. However, this has [resulted in a] downturn in sales to the mainstream terrestrial stations in some markets.

In addition, the explosion of digital platforms (both free and pay) in many territories has led to greater opportunities for distribution companies - in particular for back catalog.

VA:Why do you think this is?

AB: In some markets where the pan-global networks are particularly strong, terrestrial broadcasters are moving away from scheduling the same type of documentary programming. Digital channels, including time-shifted versions of channels, allow a broadcaster to reach specific niche audiences. In some cases, the mainstream channels may feel that the needs of the audience are catered to by these channels.

VA: What would you identify as the key challenges facing the producer and/or distributors, and how are you planning to address these?

AB: With lower license fees and fragmented audiences, producers and distributors need to be creative in financing the shows. If you sell all your rights to the secondary market on a global basis, you will then be relying on terrestrial sales for additional distribution revenues, which can be tough for the reasons outlined above. Documentaries with a domestic focus need to be fully funded by their home market.

OSF Productions, a wholly-owned subsidiary and producer of high-end natural history and science programming, has recently undergone a complete transformation - expanding its operations to include lighter fare.

On the subject of high-definition, the international market is still in its infancy and while some markets, such as Australia, have HD broadcast requirements, many other major markets do not. We have only a handful of HD outlets internationally and if this area is to grow, there needs to be a standardization of the technical [specifications] for HD.