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Inside Endemol Shine’s Ambitious Plan to Conquer Global TV

When top executives of Endemol Shine Group gather next week at the Majestic hotel in Cannes, the scene inside the conference room might be mistaken for a United Nations Security Council meeting.

Germany, France, Italy, Australia, Israel, Russia, China and Switzerland are among the more than 30 territories that will be represented alongside the superpowers of North America and the U.K. at an extra-long table. The gathering is so large that there’s a microphone and a nameplate with country flag set out for each participant.

The brainstorming and information-sharing sessions will be held largely in English, although there will be side conversations among smaller groups in numerous native tongues. Coinciding with the annual MipTV international sales conference, the group will spend a few days talking shop, screening projects and generally arming themselves with the latest market intel.

Michael Lewis for Variety

By all accounts, the periodic meetings of what the company calls its Global Creative Team are vital strategic huddles.

This year, the participants will need all the ammo they can grab if Endemol Shine is to make good on 21st Century Fox’s huge investment in content designed to travel throughout the global village.

“With growing consumption, connectivity and empowerment for customers, the creation and ownership of content is everything,” says 21st Century Fox CEO James Murdoch. Endemol Shine Group “is a big part of our plans to grow our global television output.”

Led by London-based CEO Sophie Turner Laing, Endemol Shine was created in October 2014 through the merger of Fox’s Shine Group and Apollo Global Management’s Endemol and Core Media Group. It has the widest global reach of any pure-play production-distribution outfit. Last year, amid the upheaval of the integration, the company was responsible for the production of some 733 TV series, a volume dwarfing that of the international TV production operations of most U.S. majors. The core mission is to create TV and digital content, unscripted and scripted, that can be exploited far beyond its country of origin through the company’s web of more than 120 production imprints.

“The great uniqueness of this company is you could never ever build this from scratch now,” Laing says. “Not only do we have some of the best storytellers in the world, we have an archive of ideas and IP that is totally unrivaled. And we’re multi-genre. The U.S. studios are very dominant in the scripted world but not in all the other genres.”

Within the merged entity, no unit is under more pressure to deliver than North America, under co-CEOs Cris Abrego and Charlie Corwin. The U.S. is the world’s most lucrative TV market, plus the pair oversee Canada, Mexico and a Spanish-language initiative to reach audiences in the U.S. and across Latin America. Corwin and Abrego come from very different backgrounds — the former grew up in Manhattan, the latter in El Monte, Calif. — but they both excelled as producers and businessmen in the wild and woolly world of reality TV. The two have been friends and colleagues ever since they sold their respective production companies to Endemol about eight years ago.

“The strength of (Endemol Shine Group) is that it is full of entrepreneurs who have built companies from scratch and have a lot of independence at the territory level,” Corwin says. “We have the resources and the scale to deficit-finance and distribute our shows. When we collaborate, that’s when you see the uniqueness of this company.”

In addition to crafting new hits that can flow through the many spokes of the Endemol Shine wheel, Abrego and Corwin need to carefully manage the translation of formats and series imported from the company’s sibling units. Nothing enhances the value of a property throughout the world like success in the U.S. Just ask John de Mol, the founder of Endemol. He made a fortune on the triumphs of “Big Brother” and “Fear Factor” on CBS and NBC, respectively, in the early 2000s. Long after he departed the company and formed Talpa Media, de Mol hit it big again with “The Voice.” The format has multiplied so fruitfully since it led the revival of NBC in 2011 that the U.K.’s ITV acquired Talpa last year in a deal valued at up to $1.1 billion.

“Endemol Shine is full of entrepreneurs who have built companies from scratch and have a lot of independence at the territory level.”
Charlie Corwin

There’s no doubt that the opportunity ahead is considerable, but some question why Fox is investing in a large North American operation that parallels its considerable U.S. TV production activities. The answer, in a word, is scale.

“Sophie and Cris and Charlie and the whole team are building a creative engine on a truly ambitious scale, and that’s exactly what we like about it,” Murdoch says.

At a time when the biggest of Big Media are counting on international markets to drive future earnings, Endemol Shine will face no shortage of competition at home and abroad. One international TV veteran warns that industrywide growth projections for cable and satellite TV in markets in Europe, Asia and Latin America that are under-penetrated today may be upended by the rise of over-the-top alternatives. Australia’s pay TV sector, for one, is reeling from the rapid growth of Netflix, which has more than 1 million subscribers Down Under less than a year after its launch in the territory.

“The channels business (in many markets) is mature and unsexy,” says Peter Hamilton, a Discovery Intl. alum who is now a consultant and publisher of the Documentary Television newsletter. “Channels need programs to fill their schedules, and they need them from efficient suppliers. For Endemol Shine, that means lots of demand, but with greater than ever cost pressure.”

Moreover, in the U.S., the major networks have become laser-focused on owning programming outright in order to profit from content licensing and to have maximum control over multiplatform distribution. As a result, Endemol Shine will have an even tougher time hanging onto the international rights it needs to grease the corporate wheel.

“It just means the bar is set higher,” Laing says. “We literally have to prove to everybody that truly creative ideas that appeal to a wide audience come from Endemol Shine.”

Corwin and Abrego acknowledge that it all comes down to leverage and flexibility in dealmaking, which the company possesses as a nimble but well-heeled indie. In North America, beyond its own Endemol imprints, it is home to four other busy shingles: True Entertainment, Authentic Entertainment, Original Media (which Corwin founded) and 51 Minds (which Abrego co-founded).

“If we’re able to bring our competitive advantages to the table — our ability to invest in creating pilots and series, our deep library of IP, and our local producers around the world — we’ll be able to leverage those capabilities into better rights retention,” Corwin says.

Headquartered in London, Endemol Shine has boots on the ground in most major TV territories including branded production-distribution arms in Africa (based in South Africa and Kenya), Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, China, Germany, India, Israel, Italy, the Middle East (based in Lebanon and Dubai), the Netherlands, North America, Poland, Switzerland, Turkey and the U.K. Shutterstock

Those rights are important, because otherwise the smaller Endemol North America imprints are essentially in the fee-for-service production business, earning typically a 10% premium on the license fee for cable series. As one industry observer noted, even if those companies generate volume, it’s still not a great incentive for Fox to invest in producing shows for competing networks at a very slim profit margin.

Fox has traditionally supported the idea of having multiple film and TV production imprints humming away in the U.S. to ensure diversity of ideas and products. But the challenges those companies face represent hurdles that Corwin and Abrego will have to clear in the coming years.

A key advantage: Hamilton emphasizes that among Laing and the teams in the U.S., U.K. and other big territories, Endemol Shine “has a very capable, proven executive management team.”

Endemol was ahead of the curve when it began quietly buying up banners such as Corwin’s Original and Abrego’s 51 Minds in 2007 and 2008. Prices for such companies have soared to as much as 10 to 12 times earnings in the consolidation boom that has accelerated in the past three years, as ITV, FremantleMedia, Time Warner, All3Media, Germany’s ProSieben and France’s Banijay have joined the effort to amass international scale and reach in TV production.

Today, Endemol Shine North America is still in the market for acquisitions, but it’s no longer about tonnage of shows. The company is hunting for deals and partnerships that can shore up weaker links, such as scripted production, which is why it is pursuing the purchase of a stake in management-production company Anonymous Content, the red-hot home of “Mr. Robot,” “True Detective,” “The Knick” and a host of other high-profile new series in the works.

The environment was much different nearly a decade ago when Endemol put out its feelers to Corwin’s and Abrego’s companies. Both execs recall being surprised when they heard that Endemol wanted to talk about buying them out.

Abrego’s 51 Minds was known for its lighthearted celeb-reality fare, such as the WB Network’s “The Surreal Life” and VH1’s “Flavor of Love.” Corwin’s Original Media started out in the indie film realm, backing such pics as 2005’s “The Squid and the Whale” and 2006’s “Half Nelson,” but then caught the cable reality wave with shows about offbeat subcultures including TLC’s “Miami Ink” and Discovery’s “Storm Chasers.”

In making the decision to sell, both were assured by then-Endemol USA chief David Goldberg that they would maintain their autonomy but gain the resources to grow their operations.

Corwin, at the time based in New York, first met Abrego in the conference room in the Sunset Boulevard offices near West Hollywood, where they now preside over about 275 full-time employees. They hit it off right away, comparing notes on their experiences in the trenches.

Corwin grew up in an affluent family in Manhattan, where he counted James Murdoch as a close friend in his high school days. Abrego is a native of the L.A. suburb of El Monte, a heavily Latino community where the notion of pursuing a career in television was utterly out of reach — until the local cable company installed a public-access TV studio in his high school. After one course in TV production, “I was hooked,” Abrego says. “I’ve never earned a paycheck in my life outside of television.”

Export Tally
The sheer size of Endemol Shine makes it a market leader.
733 Number of series produced by the Endemol Shine Group in 2015
No. 2 Worldwide producer of new programs in 2015, behind only the BBC
No. 3 distributor of new programs in 2015, behind the BBC and Warner Bros.

Source: Endemol Shine Group, Eurodata TV Worldwide

By the time the two were tapped to be co-CEOs following Goldberg’s departure from Endemol in late 2013, they’d developed a strong rapport as friends and colleagues.

“We were living parallel lives,” Corwin says. Abrego adds: “We had some frank conversations about how we were going to make it work … and it’s been an incredible partnership that gives us both the confidence to divide and conquer.”

Associates say the pair’s fundamental understanding of what it takes to make good television gives them an advantage in capitalizing on all the ideas and opportunities that flow in through the larger Endemol Shine network of companies.

Endemol Shine “is very much now a business of program-makers, of executors,” says Eden Gaha, president of unscripted television, who previously worked for Shine America and its predecessor companies. “It’s important that you are able to deliver on the promise of what you pitch, and execute with quality. With Cris and Charlie, it’s really great to work with people who, hands-on, have made TV.”

This year’s MipTV conference marks a kind of coming-out party for the Endemol Shine team after nearly 18 months of painstaking integration efforts. Endemol and Elisabeth Murdoch’s Shine Group, which Fox acquired in 2011, had pursued the same global expansionist strategy, which meant there were overlapping operations to sort out post merger. The Darwinian process of determining who stayed and who left went all the way to the top, as Elisabeth Murdoch and Shine CEO Alex Mahon both departed, as did Endemol CEO Just Spee. Laing was tapped to lead the combined company following her 11-year stint as a top programing exec at BSkyB, where she had worked closely with James Murdoch.

Corwin and Abrego had been co-CEOs of Endemol North America for about a year when the merger came down. They were not shy about letting the powers that be know they wanted to remain at the helm. They were handed the reins while Rich Ross, CEO of Shine America, relocated to Discovery Channel as president.

Abrego and Corwin have spent the past year reshaping Endemol Shine North America, cherry-picking what they’ve seen as the best assets — personnel and programming-wise — from both companies. Appointments of execs to run two key departments — Sharon Hall to oversee scripted series and Bonnie Pan at the Endemol Beyond digital network — were just made in January and March, respectively.

“We’ve joked that in the last year, we’ve had to integrate by day and sell shows at night,” Abrego says.

The North America unit is focused on opportunities that rev up scripted series business and craft digital content for the Endemol Beyond network, as well as maintain its traditional heft in the unscripted arena. They have placed a premium on deals with talent, such as music superstar Pitbull, beauty maven Michelle Phan and Ryan Seacrest Productions’ unscripted TV division — talent that can field projects across its various divisions. Endemol Beyond is a prime focus for North America and other divisions because it marks the company’s first stab at a direct-to-consumer play. Phan launched the beauty and lifestyle-focused Icon channel via Endemol Beyond last year. And Beyond is chasing the e-sports craze with its Legends of Gaming channels in multiple territories.

Pitbull, aka Armando Christian Perez, has been a workhorse since he first teamed with Endemol in early 2014, producing unscripted series for MTV, E! and Fuse; two digital series for Endemol Beyond; and for Fox, “Pitbull’s New Year’s Revolution” special (going into its third year) and an autobiographical scripted drama, “Mr. 305,” in development. And there’s more to come. The Endemol North America CEOs point to Perez as a prime example of how they aim to grow the company domestically by harnessing the power of its own ecosystem, in addition to working through the larger Endemol Shine apparatus.

“We’re pushing into a lot of new areas,” Abrego says. “We’re going where the audience is going. Because of the size and reach of our company, we’re in the best position to try new businesses while not taking our eye off our bread and butter.”

That bread and butter is unscripted TV. Endemol Shine has a few key broadcast network franchises — CBS’ “Big Brother,” NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” and Fox’s “MasterChef” and “MasterChef Jr.” — and a slew of cable series, from Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” and OWN’s “Super Soul Sunday” to Spike TV’s “Ink Master” and History’s “Swamp People.”

Hot Properties
New series coming from Endemol Shine North America
Unscripted
Hunted (CBS)
People are challenged to run from investigators in a nationwide manhunt; based on a U.K. format (pictured)
Superhuman (Fox)
Contestants compete in challenges that test the senses. Hosted by Kal Penn; based on a German format
Jenna Dewan Tatum dance show (NBC)
Dance competition that will feature Dewan Tatum and her husband, Channing Tatum
Scripted
I’m Dying Up Here (Showtime)
Jim Carrey-produced half-hour about the late-1970s L.A. comedy club scene
Utopia (HBO)
“Gone Girl” author Gillian Flynn has penned an adaptation of the U.K. fantasy thriller
Spanish-language
El Vato (NBC Universo)
Drama series about the rags-to-riches rise of a Mexican pop star
MasterChef Jr. Mexico (TV Azteca)
The latest incarnation of the durable cooking competition series
Digital
#Lifestyle Goals (Endemol Beyond’s Icon Network)
Hosted by beauty mavens Promise Phan, Natalies Outlet and Sofia Styled

Growing that roster means making savvy choices with the new formats it fields in the U.S., and getting creative with existing franchises. “Big Brother” now has four editions in the North America purview: CBS’ summer mainstay; a Spanish-language edition, “Gran Hermano,” which bowed earlier this year on Telemundo; a Canadian version on Shaw Media’s Slice cabler; and a Mexican edition airing on Televisa. A Mexican edition of “MasterChef Jr.” is heading to TV Azteca later this year, and the second “MasterChef” celebrity cruise is scheduled to set sail to the Caribbean in November.

Vivi Zigler, Endemol Shine North America’s president of digital, brand and audience development, says the overarching challenge at a time when content is more mobile and pliable than ever before is to maintain focus on what does the most good for any given brand.

“In marketing, if you’re everywhere, you’re really nowhere,” she says. “You need to be in the right places.”

Nowhere is there a greater need for discipline than in the digital realm. Zigler oversees Endemol Beyond and all research activity for the company.

“One of the biggest opportunities and one of the biggest problems (in digital) is that you can go in a thousand different directions,” she says. “You can create a new network. You can create a new series. You can work with an influencer or you can work with someone who’s experienced in television. Our biggest mission is to be creative entrepreneurs, but to be smart about it.”

The to-do list is long, which is why it helps to have two CEOs. Laing hails Corwin and Abrego’s “relentless dynamism and energy.”

Abrego is excited about a new spin on the home-makeover genre that bubbled up from the Endemol Beyond team and has become a TV series pitch for a show that sends millennials out to rehab dilapidated communities.

Meanwhile, Corwin has been pursuing co-production prospects for high-end scripted series that can air simultaneously in multiple markets. First on that list is an adaptation of “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” which “Luther” creator Neil Cross is turning into a series based on the Patricia Highsmith novels. It offers built-in appeal for the Endemol Shine model: “It’s a story about Americans and Brits in Italy,” Corwin says.

As Endemol Shine focuses on executing on the promise of the merger, taking the best and brightest from each company to ensure that one plus one equals three, the CEOs of North America are ready to brave the fast-changing currents and flex their muscle in a new era for television. And they’re primed to do battle for shows and market share with the handful of other content-focused giants with the same idea.

“We feel uniquely situated to take advantage of a global audience that is less isolated by geography and more united by technology than ever before,” Corwin says. “As audience tastes evolve, we’re a one-stop shop for everyone.”

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