January 2012
Volume 32 No. 1

January 2013
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Where Sellers Go Wrong with Buyers

BY ISME BENNIE

“A good distributor is someone who understands the local market and is willing to work with programmers to help solve their scheduling needs,” said Doug Smith, VP and general sales manager for Canada at CBS Studios International (CBSSI).

Bruce Cowley

Bruce Cowley

Programmer Ellen Baine concurred. “Understanding the buyer’s needs is critical. Don’t try to foist something on a buyer that is inappropriate.” The VP of Programming for Canadian movie channel group Hollywood Suite added that distributors don’t always do their homework. She cannot run animation because her channels’ conditions of license do not allow it. “So why waste time offering it to me?” she asked.

Similarly, according to Johanna Salmela, a buyer from Finland’s YLE, and Riitta Pihlajamäki, head of YLE’s four channels, the biggest mistake sellers make is “not knowing our market. We meet with new distributors, curious about their catalog [only] to be pitched shows that are totally outside our genres.” Internationally, YLE buys about 2,500 hours per year and is careful to research distributors before its buyers agree to take meetings.

According to Guido Pugnetti, head of TV Rights Acquisition for Italy’s Rai, the main problem with some distributors is their lack of vision. “Those who tend to seek immediate benefits, instead of looking to establish long-lasting relationships. For me, proposals and suggestions are welcome and sharing knowledge is needed, but pressure is mostly counterproductive.”
In Athens, John Triantafyllis, who works “for the distributors in selling their programs for Greece and Cyprus,” said “one of the major mistakes that [sellers] make is not being aware of the prevailing economic situation of the country and the restrictions the buyers face in acquiring programs.”

From the northern regions of America to the northern and southern countries of Europe, the cry from program buyers seems to be synchronized: Please understand our needs.

Closed captioning and described video, plus rights such as streaming or VoD may be part of today’s television buyers’ requirements. CBSSI’s Smith defines a good buyer as “someone that understands what rights they need as core elements of a deal and how to value them appropriately.”

“Come to us being well-informed about what we require, what rights are available, what materials are available, and whether there are residual issues or other costs involved,” said Hollywood Suite’s Baine. She finds distributors don’t always search out opportunities or exploit their rights. She has to be pro-active in order to find classic Canadian movies.

Kevin Keeley, former sales executive for Paramount’s Canadian operation elaborated: “A good distributor must know the inventory, and must be able to evaluate the programs being sold, good or bad. Be honest about your product, or it will come back to haunt you.”

In addition to practical considerations, being a good seller also means being a good programmer. “I really consider a good distributor as a partner in programming; the best ones take the time and focus in on what we want. Throwing a big net into a marketplace full of niche content channels is not a strategy for success,” said Bruce Cowley, creative head, Digital Channels, CBC Network Programming. “I don’t have the time to screen things that are sent in blindly,” he added.

Sandy Perkins, VP of Programming for Alberta-based Superchannel, agreed. “A good distributor takes the time to understand what our priorities are and customize their list of content to suit our service,” she said. “They never send stacks of DVD screeners on speculation — leaving us to sort through and research them for any possibilities. It is also frustrating to get a million e-mail messages with titles that are totally inappropriate for our service or titles that are not available in our territory.” 

Rachel Goldstein-Couto, director of Specialty Programming, Comedy and Drama for Bell Media, admonished: “Don’t lose track of what you’ve already pitched me and which product I’ve already said no to.” She added, “And do continue to service your product after the deal is done.” Goldstein-Couto expects a good distributor to keep her apprised of start dates and preemptions, to supply episodic info and, especially, opportunities for promotion, publicity and sales integration. “Programmers have a lot of pressure to show a return on investment these days and so there is an onus on the distributor to help to make the most of the product. Upside? More ROI means more money to spend next year.”

Knowing their clients’ broadcast schedules, where holes might be, their buying cycles, what the competition is selling, and keeping up with the ever-changing media world is the good distributor’s bag of tools.

Sometimes, though, no matter how good the information, how detailed the research, and how on-target the programming, the pitch to a buyer may end up in a black hole, awaiting the courtesy of at least a quick “no thanks” for the effort.

Neil Bregman, president of Ottawa-based production company Sound Venture International, who has chosen to self-distribute, understands marketplace interaction. With sufficient volume and a specialty catalog of arts, performance and documentary programs, he has been selling successfully, keeping 100 percent of the revenue, and has found it financially advantageous to do it himself. “Going to the international markets gives me a perspective on trends, pricing and needs,” Bregman said.

Producer/director Wendy Watson of Zap Productions in Toronto has gone in the opposite direction. “As an independent production company with limited access to local and international markets, we probably would’ve not made many sales without hiring a distributor, not only for their expertise, but also for their contacts in the industry.” She summed it up as follows: “Without a distributor, we would have been lost.”

Another independent producer in Toronto, Michael Glassbourg of Ticklescratch Productions, agreed in principle, but added, “Do your research, get references, and choose the right distributor for your product, whether it be for the educational or the international market, and depending on its genre.”

Going with a specialist can have advantages. Natalie Osborne is the EVP of Business Development for 9 Story Entertainment, a Toronto production and distribution company whose core business is quality children’s and animation content. She said that the kid’s space especially, by its very nature, requires particular attentiveness and experience. Her company has “The expertise to ‘superserve’ our clients’ needs starting from development and production through to distribution and marketing support.”

Ticklescratch’s Glassbourg added a caveat: “Have a clear, written contract with your representative, and operate in a relationship of trust.”

CBC’s Cowley summed up the interaction between program buyer and seller, saying, “A successful relationship in this business is based on patience; a good distributor will spend time getting to know what we really like, what we really need; this way, no one wastes time.”

But there are also those rare moments that happen only because the understanding and trust between buyer and seller is so well-defined and has stood the test of time, when the buyer is willing to go out on a limb and look at something out of left field. The seller might then hear the magic words “You are right.” It happened to this writer, taking out Degrassi internationally for the first time many years ago. Who had heard of tween programs then?
With contributions from the U.S. and Europe

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