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International content remains on a distribution roll despite COVID-19, three leading European TV distribution execs maintained at a Mipcom Online Plus market intelligence panel, aired on Monday, and hosted by Guy Bisson, executive director at London-based research company Ampere Analysis.

That’s despite new scripted commissions taking a huge hit under COVID-19, production shutdowns and the decimation of TV advertising, the executives argued.

Acquisition budgets have gone down dramatically at the free-to-air channels, Beta Film managing director Moritz von Kruedener said. But, he added, COVID-19 has also opened up “huge holes and open slots on free-to-air channels and platforms.” To fill these gaps, given that major studios are holding back product for their own platforms, there’s more of a demand for European independent content, Kruedener said.

To serve this demand, big European independents are also investing in other production-distribution companies, Banijay Rights acquiring EndemolShine being a stellar example.

“There are huge opportunities for us. Studios are holding back content. That means there are broadcasters around the world hungry for really high-quality content,” Tim Mutimer, Banijay Rights executive VP for EMEA, said.

“Distributors and production entities of scale have the possibility to meet that demand with really good and interesting shows and to fund them,” he added.

Supply chains have not been affected as much as feared, Mutimer argued, pointing out that production on Banijay shows had continued in some parts of Sweden during COVID-19. Australia got back online very quickly.

“I don’t feel a shortage for us as a production business,” concurred Ruth Berry, ITV Studios’ managing director of global distribution. As productions were delayed, [we thought] shows would come back, but a bit later. “Shows are now back in production, and we were able to sell titles in post-production,” she added.

A lot of client companies were, however, not able to produce their own local shows, so there’s a large demand for high-end reality, Mutimer added, citing clients taking different versions of “Survivor” to fill linear and on-demand services, such as Australia’s Ten, which bought the South African version of the show.

One trend Ampere Analysis has picked up is the upswing in the acceptance and demand for non-English language, non-U.S. content, Bisson commented.

“There’s a huge impact, though it started long before COVID-19, with the international release of the big streamers where we started selling especially Spanish content very happily into the world,” von Kruedener observed.

“This has been boosted by coronavirus, given the increase of demand for content, with usage of dubbed versions being very high,” he added, mentioning the sale of “Gomorrah” to HBO Max in the U.S.

“We’re very excited that we have ‘Romulus’ from Italy’s Cattleya and many of their latest Italian productions,” said Berry. She added: “We’ve pivoted in the last few years towards international and European drama in particular. Talent in Europe has grown. Working with the likes of Apple Tree, Tetra Media Studio and Cattleya, we’re seeing an increasing demand for that content.”

The panel was preceded by an introduction by Bisson, pinpointing eight content trends now shaping the business:

  1. It’s impossible not to mention COVID-19, Bisson lamented.

2. What’s got commissioned changed under COVID-19

“New scripted commissions have been disproportionately impacted, with a significant drop kicking off in March on the volume of commissions last year,” Bisson noted. The week of May 6-12, 2019, for example, saw 45 scripted commissions from the world’s top 25 commissioner parents. That figure dropped to just one commission for the week of May 4-10 this year. In contrast, there’s been a big upswing in unscripted commissions, hitting 135 in week 26 of this year (June 22-28), compared with 60 in week 26 last year, according to Ampere Analysis.

3. The content bubble hasn’t burst

Despite COVID-19, there have been a slew of new, often studio-owned market entrants led by Disney Plus, Quibi, Peacock, HBO Max, Apple TV Plus and CBS All Access, Bisson observed. The 801 original shows in production or development from the new players – in which he included Netflix and Amazon – means that commissioning activity held up at a very high rate, he added. Netflix alone has about 280 shows in production or development. Comedy (19% of commissions) and sci-fi/fantasy (also 19%) remain the most popular genre orders. “The scripted boom is being maintained by these new players and looks set to continue for the near future,” Bisson said.

4. Content is converging

“The sort of content we thought of as SVOD content, which was largely scripted, is now shifting to embrace more unscripted,” Bisson said. Netflix’s number of reality and entertainment titles was still a small 6% of its total shows in July 2020, but has doubled from 3% in 2018 – a shift to unscripted bringing the streamers more into the realm of linear broadcasters.

5. Streamers benefit from the rights situation

More so than broadcasters, streamers keep a lot of content in their platforms in perpetuity. That’s a benefit, Bisson argued. “From the point of view of the consumer, it seems like they have a lot more content but in fact they have big rump of content that sits there all the time,” Bisson said. 57% of U.K. linear scripted shows are new in a year, only 27% of Netflix’s. Broadcasters are now trying to move in this direction.

6. Streamers rely less on renewals

Around half of U.K. linear series are renewed, only 28% of VOD scripted. Long-running streamer services are few and far between.

7. Studio hold-back is starting to bite

The biggest producers in the world are increasingly keeping back product for their own streaming platforms. Netflix lost 1,920 hours of scripted studio content from the platform in just the last 18 months. Studio content pulled from the open market is increasingly children’s content, crime and thrillers, general drama and action and sci-fi and comedy – areas Netflix and other streamers will have to fill in the year or two to come, Bisson said.

8. Diversity increasingly sells

Ampere Analysis commissioning data has noted a noticeable upswing in content embracing diversity of voice. LGBT content commissioning is increasing, led by the streaming platforms (Netflix’s “AJ and the Queen,” for example). Diversity isn’t just about gender or sexuality, however, Bisson said. Seven upcoming series tackle mental health issues, nine feature autistic characters, five as series’ protagonists.

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“Gomorra,” season 4 (Courtesy of Gianni Fiorito) Courtesy of Gianni Fiorito