March/April 2011
Volume 31 No. 2

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FremantleMedia’s Tony Cohen: A Journalist With (Tele) Vision

In a wide-ranging interview with VideoAge, FremantleMedia CEO Tony Cohen reflected on his 32-year career, assessed what the future holds for the content industry and discussed how FremantleMedia has positioned itself to face what Cohen saw as a future that will be as exciting as it will be demanding.

Cohen was appointed CEO when the London-based FremantleMedia was born in 2001. It was renamed after Britain’s Pearson Television sold its stakes in RTL Group to Germany’s Bertelsmann. A year earlier, Pearson Television had merged with CLT-Ufa to create RTL Group. Pearson Television was created in 1996, after the British media conglomerate acquired All American Television.

CohenFor a man who has risen to the very top of the audiovisual content business, it is not a little ironic that Tony Cohen initially aspired to a career in journalism. “I started my career,” he recalled, “on the old Evening News [a London-wide local newspaper that ceased publication in the ’80s] and only turned to being a television producer when that title folded. Initially I thought television would be an interim measure, for maybe six months or so — but that was 32 years ago!” The influence of his early years in journalism is still with him. When asked to name the three individuals who have had the greatest influence on his career, first up was his old editor at The Evening News, who, said Cohen, “taught me how to write.” The producer David Cox got a vote of thanks for “teaching me how to analyze,” and Cohen also credited former Pearson CEO and former BBC director general Greg Dyke for, “teaching me that in business, imagination is as important as discipline.”

In this respect there is a telling quote about Cohen that Greg Dyke gave to Royal Television Society’s house organ, Television a few years ago: “I had to have Tony [Cohen]. He does the thinking and I do the PR. Why don’t we just hire him? ‘You don’t understand, it doesn’t work without the PR.”

Clearly, from the very start of his career, the business side of the industry held a fascination for him. In the ’80s, Cohen took a one-year course at the London Business School, becoming, as far as he is aware, the first British producer to do this.

Over a career stretching back three decades Cohen has seen many changes. “In technology,” he pointed out, “we have moved from 16 mm reversal, through tape to digital, and the move to tapeless production has had a significant impact, as has the introduction of new low energy lighting and cameras — especially on drama.”

The relentless march of technology has also had a profound impact on business models, with the arrival of the multi-channel environment and of a vibrant independent production sector, as well as the significant effects of so many new platforms, especially, in Cohen’s view, “mobile and the Internet with the enormous impact of social networking and gaming in particular.”

In content, Cohen pointed to, “the emergence of the super format and the birth, and long life of reality,” as key developments, and he is adamant that, “analyzing these changes and adapting FremantleMedia’s business to take advantage of the opportunities they offer has been our core activity for the past few years.”

But, for all of the undoubted importance of the changes that have taken place in the past few years, for Cohen, it has been the current trends that carry the greatest significance. “The most important current trend,” he insisted, “is that television audiences are still rising, and this is something we see in all the world’s major television markets. In the U.K. for example,” he continued, The X Factor has just enjoyed its best ever ratings in what was its seventh season.

In the U.S. too, American Idol is still the number one show even in its tenth season. In fact, in most of the major markets, viewing figures for all the big brands are still rising,” an observation which leads Cohen to what he considers another important current trend.

“It is worth noting,” he suggested, “that there are fewer and fewer really big shows, and that those that make it as such are getting bigger and bigger. At the same time there are more and more smaller shows that can work really well for smaller, niche audiences, but,” he cautioned, “the middle ground is fast disappearing.”

Returning to his earlier reference to the enormous impact he believes the Internet has had, especially with the advent of social networking and gaming, it is typical of Cohen to focus on the opportunities these changes bring with them, citing as an example, “our use last season of YouTube to hold auditions for America’s Got Talent; not only was this hugely popular, but one of the acts that entered the show this way actually made it to the final.” Nor is this the only opportunity Cohen is eager to harvest in the still relatively new world of social networking. “Social networking sites can,” he insisted, “have a vital role to play in generating buzz and excitement around a show while also providing a means for audience reaction to reach millions of others.”

But, significant though the Net is, new opportunities also exist in other areas and Cohen is adamant that the proper exploitation of these opportunities is vital to the future prosperity of any company involved in the content business. Few would argue with his assertion that, “there is now less and less money available from broadcasters, but,” he continued, “it is also true that there are more and more opportunities opening up elsewhere.”

As examples of such opportunities, Cohen highlighted, “new opportunities in the area of branded programming as well as in gaming.” He also pointed to, “our acquisition of in the branded programming arena, and also of Canadian gaming specialist, Ludia, both of which we announced last October,” as positioning FremantleMedia to move into this new area, and he was clear as to the importance he attaches to these acquisitions. “They are,” he asserted, “central to our strategy of adapting to rapidly changing entertainment business models, and the very different way in which companies will do entertainment in the future.”

Indeed Cohen believed that, “the content business is changing very quickly and will, I suspect, look very different, and very much more complicated in the future.” Which, presumably, is why he also noted that, “the role of any company in the content business has to be to anticipate what the impact of the changes we see all around us will be, and to adapt to these changes. And,” he stressed, “the main thing to understand is you can’t hang around, you have to spot trends, and, when you have identified one, you must move quickly with it and reorganize your business to take account of the changes you have made.”

As Cohen suggested earlier in this interview, this has been the focus of activity at FremantleMedia for some time now, and with the company’s recent move into the area of kids’ programming he was satisfied that, “FremantleMedia is now in most of the areas of business we want to be in,” adding, “I have already mentioned the acquisition of and Ludia, and we have recently announced our first kids’ series, My Babysitter Is A Vampire, and more will follow.”

In the midst of all this change, some aspects of Fremantle’s business remain constant. It has always believed in the maxim “think global, act local,” and has recently added to its 22 production offices and 11 representation offices around the world, with the acquisition of production companies in Italy and The Netherlands and the opening of an office in India. And, said Cohen, “the future growth of Fremantle will be both organic and through acquisition. What is important is building partnerships and sometimes this is better done through acquisitions, and sometimes organically, just depends on what the situation calls for.”


VideoAge International: Could you explain the difference between FremantleMedia and FremantleMedia Enterprises?

David Ellender: FremantleMedia Enterprises [FME] is the commercial and brand extension arm of FremantleMedia. FremantleMedia is one of the leading creators and producers of entertainment brands in the world. The company creates and produces many of the world’s highest-rated prime time entertainment, drama and factual entertainment programs and formats, including Idols (co-produced with 19 Productions in the U.S.), Got Talent (co-produced with Syco in the U.K. and the U.S.), The X Factor (co-produced with Syco in the U.K. and the U.S.), Take Me Out, The Price is Right, and Gute Zeiten Schlechte Zeiten (Good Times, Bad Times), which is Germany’s number one serial drama and one of 12 daily dramas made by FremantleMedia around the world. FremantleMedia has production operations in over 22 countries and creates nearly 10,000 hours of programming a year. FremantleMedia also recently acquired the global transmedia company, and Ludia, creator and distributor of cross-platform interactive entertainment.

FME, the company’s commercial and brand extension arm, operates globally and is comprised of three core businesses — international distribution, brand licensing, and home entertainment. Our distribution catalogue represents more than 20,000 hours of finished programming that is sold to more than 150 countries. Our brand licensing division is responsible for building brands on and off screen through sponsorship and promotions, consumer products and interactive, mobile and gaming, and live events. In home entertainment we operate DVD retail labels in both the U.K. and Australia; and in the U.S. and EMEA we have a successful licensing program to third party distributors. FME has operations in 11 locations around the world.

VAI: What does MIP represent for FME?

DE: MIP-TV is a very important event for us. Every year, we launch an exciting new slate of finished programming and our sales force gets the opportunity to present these to a huge range of broadcasters. It’s a fantastic forum for us to meet up with long-standing clients, meet new partners and catch up with colleagues from around the globe. Not only do we close a lot of deals at the market, but we start a lot of conversations that lead to deals, so it’s a very busy and exciting time.

VAI: FME is preparing for an important L.A. Screenings. Why is this market of particular importance?

DE: FME has been going to L.A. Screenings for a number of years and it continues to be of importance to us, especially in regards to our LatAm activity, which is a significant part of our business. We’ve also been particularly busy in the U.S. cable drama space recently and have developed a number of relationships with U.S.-based drama producers and creators, so L.A. Screenings is not only a good place to talk to broadcasters about what we’re doing, but it also gives us a platform to develop even more relationships.