The global television marketplace has come through an unprecedented 18-month period of moving and shaking as the structural shift to direct-to-consumer streaming collided head-on with pandemic lockdown conditions around the world.
As the industry regroups for 2021 and gathers this week for the annual NATPE conference, held in virtual form this year, the largest U.S.-based media giants are squarely focused on international markets as the primary engine of growth for vertically integrated streaming behemoths. This transformation for Disney, Comcast, WarnerMedia and others has led to the perception that the largest studios are largely out of the business of licensing content on a country- or region-wide basis.
But in fact, the dealmaking environment for content owners is more dynamic, albeit more complicated, than ever.
“The international (market) has not slowed down for us. There’s so much demand for our shows — new shows, library content,” said Dan Cohen, president of ViacomCBS Global Distribution Group. “We are doing deals with everybody.”
ViacomCBS has joined the list of majors with ambition to build a global streaming platform. Paramount Plus, an enhanced version of the existing CBS All Access subscription service, is slated to debut March 4 in the U.S. and Latin America. Paramount Plus is a content-hungry venture, as is ViacomCBS’ free streaming service Pluto TV. Discovery joined the fray on Jan. 4 with its Discovery Plus clutch of lifestyle services. Like ViacomCBS, Discovery hopes to capitalize on its strong linear presence in Latin America, Europe and other top international markets.
“We believe international represents a much larger opportunity (than domestic), as proven by Netflix to date,” media analyst Michael Nathanson wrote in an analysis of the streaming subscription marketplace published Jan. 15 by MoffettNathanson.
But the heavy spotlight on streaming as a strategy to be articulated to Wall Street doesn’t mean that ViacomCBS’s vault is now locked up for Paramount Plus. At a moment when content licensing deals can be done in month-to-month increments — a sea change from the multi-year output deals favored in years past — it’s in the interest of the largest players to be as nimble as possible to make the most of the gold-rush environment.
The heightened activity overseas among Netflix, Disney, WarnerMedia et al has been a gift to studios with big libraries and for producers who know how to produce content that travels. The battle for market share among the streaming giants has forced local and regional TV outlets to step up their games as well. This has also been a boon for non-U.S. heavyweights a la Fremantle, ITV Studios, Banijay, All3Media, Studio Canal and more, particularly in delivering high-end drama and factual fare at a price.
“More and more of them want original content,” producer Jane Root, founder and CEO of Nutopia, said last month during a panel session hosted by the PGA and Monte Carlo Television Festival. “It’s paradoxical but the intensity of the competition is actually opening things up.”
For producers who have been active in the international co-production arena, the financial pressure on traditional linear TV outfits in the U.S. and Europe is viewed as a good sign that there will be more interest in productions where costs can be shouldered among several partners.
Garth Neame, executive chairman of NBCUniversal’s Carnival Films, producers of “Downton Abbey,” sees big changes ahead, spurred by the economic wallop of the pandemic.
“The tectonic plates are moving in this industry,” Neame said last month. “There is the practical problems of COVID, but things were moving massively anyway. When we come out the other end, I see 2020 as moving things as only a war does. We’re going to move (the industry) five years quicker than we would have.”
And to understand a fast-changing market, it helps to be there. ViacomCBS, for one, is maintaining its distribution teams in key global territories despite the emergence of Paramount Plus, as the company looks to make the most of sales opportunities in Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa.
“There’s no substitute for having boots on the ground for understanding a market and what its needs are,” Cohen says.