My 2 Cents

Recently, a sales executive at one of the world’s major content distributors (but not a studio)  was lamenting that, because of a particular country’s censorship, his company was losing a valuable time slot on a TV broadcast network. Adding insult to injury, the distributor could not offer the client another program for that particular availability. This, in effect, compares to real estate.

Pleading with the broadcaster to move the objectionable TV show to a later, more “adult” hour did not prove successful: First because, for the broadcaster, it presented the hassle of re-arranging the station’s programming schedule and, second, because the rights holder’s license fee would have taken a dive. At that point it was better trying to have the show in that territory migrate to cable or satellite channels.

This experience made me realize how radically the international TV business has changed. Up until a few years ago, film and TV program producers and distributors set up shop at various trade shows or visited clients in their offices with suitcases full of videocassettes in the earlier days, DVDs later on and, today, PC screens, to sell rights to as many programs as possible, without ever worrying if they were going to even show up on TV.

Indeed, some TV operators bought programs not because they needed them, but simply to remove them from the competition. In some cases the TV outlets deemed it more worthwhile to lose money on the program license fee, than risking losing some of the audience (and thus, advertising revenue) due to counter-programming that the particular show offered to the competition.

Subsequently, when the syndication biz became a mature business in the U.S., distributors, who had to invest millions of dollars to clear (e.g., find TV time slots market-by-market) a show, always made sure to have on their shelves a ready-made program to replace the first one if it were to fail in the ratings. In those years the biggest challenge for U.S. syndicators was to find an opening on a TV station’s schedule, and once the slot was finally conquered, no one would have wanted to lose.

What the U.S. TV business experienced in the late 1980s is no longer valid due to local stations’ consolidation, nonetheless it is becoming a business model in other parts of the world. Unfortunately, only a handful of international distributors are actually capitalizing on it. The writing was already on the wall a few years back, when, during the L.A. Screenings, the studios were complaining that they had to compete among themselves and with the indies, for each and every half-hour avail on any day part of the world’s TV outlets’ schedules. The business model of studios’ distribution was clearly changing from selling programs “by the pound” to securing time slots on any TV outlet.

Today, this strategic business model is increasingly, if slowly, being implemented by independent (i.e. non-studio) distributors, who are restructuring their sales staffs not according to program genre, but by territory. In the past, it was useful to have one team focus, on let’s say, documentaries, another on drama (fiction) and yet another on children’s programming and animation. Those sales executives were experts on their particular genre and knew their buyers well. The only problem was that, if the buyers liked a program but did not have slots open, nor could the buyers envision one opening in the near future, there was nothing that the seller could do, except be resigned.

On the other hand, when international sellers have control of their full catalogues and they know their various territories well, they can sell buyers specific programs that could improve the ratings of various time slots or fill sudden avails. American syndicators, who refined this sales tool to an art, would go to a programmer with charts, statistics, ratings and focus group results to demonstrate how their shows would perform better than what was currently on a TV outlet’s schedule.

This is the same route that international distributors will now have to take. There is no other way. Competition for time periods is getting tough, available time slots are getting scarcer (due to increasing local production) and rating winners are becoming fewer. But most importantly, as indicated above, the fact that international distributors now have full catalogues at their disposal, they can more easily close deals, especially when buyers indicate interest in a different genre than the one originally proposed. For example, if a distributor is making a sales pitch for, let’s say, adult animation that could presumably do better than an existing show, but the buyer is, instead, showing interest in another time slot in which a drama series would do better, having a full catalogue available, the seller could certainly find exactly what the buyer is looking for.

Naturally, once the coveted time slot is conquered, the seller has found gold or struck oil! In that case the commanding order should be: Keep it, keep it at all costs.

Dom Serafini