Broadcasters upbeat for populist fare

Timeslot openings available for TV documentaries

As program budgets head south in these belt-tightening times, distributors are betting that TV documentaries can punch above their weight by delivering value-for-money in broadcasters’ schedules.

“Generally, distribution is pretty buoyant,” says Richard Life, head of factual acquisitions and co-production at ITV Global in the U.K. “Two factors are driving demand: retrenchment in original commissions and the fact that there are more channels globally than ever before. We’re not expecting any massive increase in license fees, but volumes will increase.”

If this viewpoint sounds absurdly upbeat, Life counters by explaining that a high number of territories, principally in northern Europe, have historically been strong markets for U.S. and U.K. docus.

“It’s harder to sell in France and Germany because they’ve got their own impressive documentary tradition, but there are opportunities for selling to the smaller niche channels in Germany, France, Spain and Italy,” Life adds. “Ultimately, of course, it is all about having the right show. A story that is unique and extraordinary with strong human interest that embraces universal themes is likely to sell.”

A case in point is “Smallest Muscleman,” from U.K. shingle Zig Zag, about a 20-year-old Indian bodybuilder who is the height of a 2-year-old.

“Some people look down on these ‘Extraordinary People’-style shows, but they don’t all have to be about babies with two heads, Life says. “A lot of them are extremely well made and tell legitimate stories. They are visually arresting and avoid talking heads.”

To date, “Smallest Muscleman” has sold to broadcasters throughout the globe but not in America.

“The U.S. is very picky about what it buys,” Life concedes. “It doesn’t really buy British documentaries, although U.S. channels will acquire programs made by Brits but starring Americans.”

Michael Katz, vice prexy of programming and production at A&E Television Networks Intl. in New York, agrees that character-driven, factual fare remains in vogue in key international markets.

“Ice Road Truckers,” a huge hit for A&E net the History Channel in both the U.S. and the U.K., has helped drive sales in many global territories.

Webs in Germany, the U.K, France, Benelux, Scandinavia, Central Europe and Oz have all licensed the show.

Says Katz: “Stories of ordinary people who tackle extraordinary frontiers like the Arctic ice roads have always made compelling and entertaining television.”

He adds: “As documentaries go, these shows aren’t cheap. You have to invest a lot of time to find the right cast, and they can be difficult and dangerous to shoot because filming is only possible at certain times of the year.”

While webs in the U.S., Europe and Oz have discovered the value of “Ice Road Truckers” in helping to win and retain ratings — in Blighty, “Ice Road Truckers” is a breakout hit for terrestrial channel Five — Asian and Latin American auds prefer factual entertainment shows to more reality-skewed docus.

“Programs like ‘Ice Road Truckers’ don’t have the traction in Asia (excluding Japan) and Latin America that they have in the West,” admits the AETN Intl. exec, who will be appearing in a Mipdoc panel discussion on financing. He has high hopes for new reality skein “Steven Seagal: Lawman,” lined up for a launch at the Cannes sales mart.

If ever-shrinking program budgets are providing new opportunities to sell the right kind of docu, another stimulus to the genre is the global emergence of high-definition channels.

“We’re not quite at a point where broadcasters will pay a premium for HD, but some territories won’t look at a show unless it’s shot in HD,” explains ITV Global’s Life. “Nat Geo and PBS in the U.S. expect the programs they acquire to be made in HD.”

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