The Big Issue: The Worries And Rewards of Show Biz

By Bob Jenkins

If a pollster stopped you in the aisles of the Palais at MIP-TV and asked what you thought was the single biggest issue facing the industry today - like many of those whom VideoAge stopped in the corridors of their own offices - you'd probably say something like, "that all depends on who you are, and which part of the media you're in." So did most of our interviewees. But we weren't having that, and so, here's what some of those at the very top of their game had to say when pushed and shoved on the matter.

Stephen J Davis
Justin Bodle of Power

For Nadine Nohr, managing director at U.K.-based Granada International, the big issue is video-on-demand (VoD), which she described as, "a phenomenon that continues to explode throughout the world." While she confessed to being, "very excited by the opportunity this massive increase in platforms offers us to further exploit our programming alongside current broadcast customers," she also said, "it is vital that our programming be made to stand out from the crowd." Nohr revealed that Granada International has chosen to impose a minimum guarantee on VoD operators wishing to license their programming, "to avoid the risk of it being locked away in a library somewhere and not earning it's keep."

While Nohr acknowledged that this strategy of demanding a minimum payment "definitely puts pressure on the VoD companies to market and promote a show to ensure that it is recognized and selected by the putative audiences," she modestly accepted, "it does help if you have a well known international program brand, such as Prime Suspects, Poirot, Marple or Cracker, which have great audience recognition around the world, and which therefore make the VoD marketers' job so much easier."

VoD is just one of the new platforms occupying the thoughts of Mark Gray, vice president of Co-Productions and Acquisitions at the U.K.'s Fremantle International Distribution. But, putting the totality of all the new media together, Gray said, "the big issue for us is rights; the way in which they are defined, and the way in which they are exploited. All of which," he continued, "have had a major impact at FID. We have established a New Platform Division under the control of our CCO, Gary Carter, with the specific brief of building new brands and products ideally suited to the new platforms. The other impact of this thinking," concluded Gray, "is that we have decided that, with the exception of a few genres - such as big set piece dramas - we will look at the exploitation of our rights on a content basis rather than a platform basis, and this may well mean that 'release patterns' across the different platforms will vary according to the nature of the content under consideration."

New media platforms are also of concern to Justin Bodle, chairman and CEO of U.K.-based Power, but his take is derived from a different perspective than so far offered. "The Big Issue going forward," averred Bodle, "is the fragmentation of the media." He continued, "this is the Big Issue in a number of ways. Firstly, it impacts significantly on advertisers' ability to regularly and reliably deliver a mass audience on an economically viable basis. This is relevant not only to broadcasters but also to worldwide communications, which are based, to a significant degree, on free-to air television supported by advertising. If that system is to fail, it will have huge social as well as economic impacts."

Bodle believes that it is vital that existing terrestrial broadcasters counter this threatened problem with event television. Pointing to the example of U.S. terrestrial channels, which have, he pointed out, "recently regained market share with event television, especially drama. Big, high-end drama," he said, "not only enables terrestrials to stand out from the crowded cabsat market as a source of excellent programming," but, just as importantly, "creates the advertising environment in which advertisers wish to communicate their message."

For Daniela Matei, vice president of Productions at Netherlands-based SBS Broadcasting, however, "the Big Issue is really simple. It's content. Content is king; it always has been, it still is, and I believe it always will be." This, Matei said, is good news for broadcast groups such as SBS because, "even if we do arrive at a situation in which schedules and business models change and each individual has available to them thousands of hours of programming, they will still, ultimately, choose the most popular." Despite this positive note, however, Matei cautioned that "[these are still] very, very, early days, and we don't know how this younger generation will evolve." She continued, "at the moment they are still, by and large, passive and want to sit there consuming television, which," as she observed, "makes them great to market to." But there is, she warned, "an increasingly large audience sector that's pro-active and which is ready to seek out what they want. You only have to look," she emphasized, "at the two million downloads of the theme music to Desperate Housewives, that were sold, 'immediately' once ABC made it available on iStore."

But the big issue and the future it represents is not always about technology. Robert Riesenberg, president and CEO of Full Circle Entertainment, a U.S. company focused on the production of advertiser supported programming, sees the big issue and, for that matter, The Big Opportunity, as arising from the relaxation of regulations prohibiting such funding in many countries around the globe. "These changes," said Riesenberg, "have been driven by economics, and the increasing difficulty of producing quality shows on the budgets available." This relaxation of worldwide rules on advertiser funded programming has meant that Full Circle can not only look at exporting advertiser-funded programming from the U.S. to the rest of the world, but can also explore the possibility of originating such programming overseas, and re-importing it to the U.S., "with," said Riesenberg, "the great advantage that the question of who owns which rights in the show never arises when approached this way around."