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Screen Edge 2016: local stories told and sold elsewhere

NZ On Air’s Glenn Usmar talked with panel members from here and overseas about the buying and selling of ideas and shows to broadcasters overseas. On the panel were locals Cass Avery (Augusto), Rachel Anthony (Greenstone), Robin Shingleton (NHNZ); Keiko Bang (LIC) and Jonathan Rudd (Discovery) spoke about their work in Asia.

Bang has been an independent producer, based mostly in Singapore, for many years and was one of the first Asian producers to be commissioned to make content in Asia for US and European channels. Recently she teamed with LIC (itself a regular attendee at Screen Edge) to head up their operations in China.

Bang noted that 65% of foreign docos get on to Chinese TV screens via LIC, as a lot of the country’s TV stations can’t work directly with foreign companies. She also noted that NZ producers were singularly well-placed to work with China as NZ has the only co-production treaty with China covering TV.

NHNZ sister company ZooMoo has recently done deals with China’s state broadcaster CCTV, and Pukeko has also done deals for its children’s show The WotWots.

Generally, Bang suggested, lifestyle-oriented formats were good for China, although there’s recently been some kickback against the proliferation of entertainment formats and political subject remains a difficult area to address.

Anthony noted that Greenstone has long exported successfully to many countries including Australia, and makes local iterations of some of its programming across the ditch. Motorway Patrol is presently heading into its 16th series.

She observed that the budgets were a bit better in Australia, but that the commissioning and programme-making were about the same things everywhere – access to the compelling characters who would drive story.

It was a point Mohammed Ali Naqvi had addressed in an earlier session, talking about his access to the clerics of Pakistan’s Red Mosque for Among the Believers, and was heartily seconded by NHNZ’s Shingelton and Discovery’s Rudd.

Avery noted that Augusto didn’t always pursue the traditional route of seeking broadcaster sign-off as a route to funding applications, but sometimes worked first with commercial partners before bringing on a broadcaster much further down the track.

That was, in part, to help limit how many parties had a significant say about the show – “design by committee” being an issue other panel members also touched on in relation to multi-party co-productions.

“Broadcasters always want some editorial control,” Shingleton noted, “but it depends on the amount of skin they’re prepared to put in.”

Discovery’s Rudd also talked about the increase in the number of partners on a series which five or ten years ago would have been made by a single producer or broadcaster. NHNZ has become party to more of those deals in recent years, even though it produces shows mostly for multi-national networks rather than the NZ market.

Sometimes, however, the ideas driving a show are local and need to find their feet – in whatever way – locally: with a local commissioner and local money. Shingleton cited Australia-shot Abalone Wars (pictured, top) as an example. Originally conceived as a standalone one-hour and pitched for Discovery’s Ignite call so the divers could “show families and friends what they did when they went to work in a morning”, the show premiered in 2012 and became Discovery’s best-performing locally-produced show in the ANZ market. It’s now heading into its fifth season and last year won the Asian TV Award for Best Documentary Series.

“Is there still a place for one-off doco programming?” Usmar asked.

Yes, according to Bang and Rudd. While one-offs might screen as such or be curated into a more broadly-themed series, they were still very popular, Rudd claimed.

On the issue of trends, Anthony noted that multi-night factual was growing, although it remains more popular on dedicated channels. It’s certainly easier to clear more of the schedule for an event like Shark Week on a Discovery channel than it is for free to air broadcasters to create so much space in schedules for one week.

That commercially-driven approach to programming and commissioning was a subject a number of panel members addressed. Bang noted that in China TV commissioners were not very supportive of the local production community, but that sponsorship supported a lot of programming. LIC has long operated a model of buying programme slots on TV stations and taking the ad and sponsor revenue in return. Bang noted that LIC had received sponsorships of up to $2 million for some programming.

Shingelton also noted that it wasn’t about preserving an idea’s purity or integrity, and that looking at an idea in a different way could commercialise it. Without that, the reality is that many of those ideas remain on the drawing board.

Bang also noted the growth of income opportunities online, something she’d touched on in the day’s opening session, and noted – especially for lifestyle programming in China – the use of QR codes for buying things used in programmes – anything from a frying pan to ingredients for an entire meal in some food programmes.

She also commented on the development of online-first, particularly in parts of the ASEAN region.

Does data play much of a part in decision-making? asked one audience member.

“We run a lot of analytics on existing product,” Rudd noted. “We can see tangible results.”

While it’s hard to get away from big data, there’s also a risk that relying on any sort of data to drive decision-making encourages commissioning more of the same and less risk-taking. One place for which there’s an awful lot of data about viewing is YouTube, and Rudd noted that Discovery was moving to commissioning its own shorter-form content, and that we should expect to be seeing more shorter programming in the future.

It may not be as short as Loading Docs’ three-minute films, but it plays better for millennials than one-hour programming. Having said that, Rudd reminded that Discovery’s annual call for longer-form content, Ignite, is currently open until 30 June.

Whether or not an idea was local or global, short or long form, theatrical or best-suited to viewing on a phone, panel members suggested the same criteria applied to evaluating it.

Is the idea unique, and is it worth devoting real time and energy to? You’ve got to show you can make it – and that there’s going to be an audience for it.

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