News Corp. nabs Kiwi doc producer

News Corp. is plunging into the natural world in a big way, buying an 80% stake in Television New Zealand’s prestigious Natural History Unit production arm.

Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. TVNZ’s Natural History Unit has grown over the past five years to become one of the world’s largest producers of high-end nature and wildlife docu fare.

For TVNZ, the sale of a majority stake in Natural History Unit comes as part of the state-run broadcaster’s drive to spin off its production subsidiaries. TVNZ is retaining a 20% stake in Natural History Unit with guaranteed access to its future productions. Twentieth Century Fox Intl. TV prexy Mark Kaner spearheaded the acquisition for News Corp.

Natural History Unit’s home base will remain in New Zealand, but its operations will be supervised by the newly formed Fox Television Studios production outfit based on the Fox lot in Los Angeles. Michael Stedman, Natural History managing director, will report to David Grant, president of FTS.

Fox aims to expand Natural History Unit’s production activities for News Corp.’s various worldwide distribution outlets, including the domestic Fox network and FX cabler, as well as outside buyers.

FTS producers also will collaborate with their Kiwi counterparts in developing new programming derived from Natural History’s extensive library of footage of natural wonders — material which is a far cry from the amateur homevid bent of Fox’s “When Animals Attack” speshes.

“We have people here (at FTS) that are very interested in working in this genre of programming,” Grant said. “Everything Natural History Unit produces is inherently first-class, and there are lots of interesting and compelling ways we could package that footage for the American market and the international market.”

Natural History Unit will continue to pursue co-production agreements along the lines of existing pacts with the Discovery Channel, PBS and Japan’s NHK. Twentieth Century Fox Intl. TV will handle global distribution of Natural History Unit titles once its existing distribution agreements expire.

“What makes this deal a coup for (Fox) is that there are only a few companies in the world that are able to produce this kind of sophisticated programming,” said Grant. “As we go forward into the digital future, this kind of quality, enduring programming will be very valuable.”

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