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C21’s top stories of 2017

C21 Media’s news editor Clive Whittingham looks back over a year of scandal, mega-mergers, streamer growth and The Handmaid’s Tale for our annual countdown of the biggest news stories of the past 12 months.

Bob Iger (left) and Rupert Murdoch

Disney agrees $52bn Fox deal
Disney agreed to buy a number of 21st Century Fox assets, including its US cablenets and stakes in European pay TV operator Sky and production giant Endemol Shine Group, in a US$52.4bn deal in December.

The agreement came six weeks after talks between the two US media conglomerates first emerged and follows interest in the business from NBCUniversal owner Comcast and telco Verizon. Disney will take over a cable operation that includes National Geographic, FX and FXX, as well as a 30% interest in Hulu, giving it a controlling stake in the US streamer.

Entertainment properties including X-Men, Avatar and The Simpsons will also join Disney’s portfolio, while Fox’s 50% stake in Endemol Shine, which is behind formats such as MasterChef and Big Brother and UK dramas Broadchurch and Peaky Blinders, is also included.

Prodcos in its stable include Tiger Aspect, Shine TV, Princess Productions and Kudos in the UK, True Entertainment and 51 Minds in the US, and WeiT Media in Russia. It also operates sales arm Endemol Shine International, Endemol Shine Latino, an Australian division and Endemol Shine Nordics, amongst numerous other divisions.

In addition, Disney is set to acquire Fox’s international operations including pay TV operators Sky in Europe and Star and Tata Sky in India, as well as its film studio operations.

The acquisition is expected to yield at least US$2bn in cost savings as the businesses combine. The deal is likely to be subject to significant regulatory hurdles over competition concerns. It also comes as Rupert Murdoch-backed Fox is mired in UK regulatory scrutiny over its latest bid to acquire the remaining 61% of Sky it didn’t own, a deal that emerged a year ago.

Harvey Weinstein fallout
It was 2005 when Courtney Love told an interviewer on the red carpet at the Pamela Anderson Comedy Roast that her advice to young women trying to make it in Hollywood was: “If Harvey Weinstein invites you to a private party in the Four Seasons don’t go.”

Harvey Weinstein

It has taken until 2017 for the behaviour of one of the most powerful men in film and television to catch up with him, hidden for years by hush money, gagging orders and the threat of the effect on actresses’ careers if they spoke out.

Sacked by his own company in October amidst a string of sexual harassment and rape (Weinstein denies any non-consensual sex) allegations, the impact of those without power in the industry finally saying no to its seedy ‘casting couch’ underbelly has been dramatic.

The first impact was felt on The Weinstein Company (TWC), which looks a dead duck, and a string of television projects the firm was involved in. These include the BBC’s big-budget Les Miserables, which was dropped by the pubcaster, and Showtime’s Oliver Stone-directed drama Guantanamo, which will only proceed without TWC involvement.

But more profoundly, a string of similar stories followed under a #metoo movement from actresses, actors and execs on social media. Amazon’s content boss Roy PriceHouse of Cards star Kevin Spacey, comedian Louis CK, actor Ed Westwick and Great American Baking Show judge Johnny Iuzzini have all been publicly named and shamed.

Netflix dismissed its director of global kids’ content Andy Yeatman after the executive made a controversial remark to one of several women who have accused The Ranch star Danny Masterson of rape. SuperSize Me director Morgan Spurlock has left his Warrior Poets prodco after admitting to historical sexual misconduct via his social media channels and John Lassiter has stepped back at Disney/Pixar.

It’s been a chastening time for a Hollywood industry that has tolerated and accepted such behaviour for too long.

Apple staffs up
While Netflix and Amazon have spent big on content and rolled out globally, and Hulu has a burgeoning reputation in the US, the wait for a serious play into commissioning from tech giant Apple has dragged on.

Zack Van Amburg (left) and Jamie Erlicht

It now seems certain that this will be the big story of 2018 after a string of hires in the second half of 2017 saw some of the industry’s biggest names join the company. That started in June when the former presidents of Sony Pictures Television, Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg, came onboard, with credits including Better Call Saul and The Crown to their name.

They’ve been followed by former Channel 4 chief creative officer Jay Hunt, who is set to lead European programming, and Amazon drama chief Morgan Wandell, who has been hired as head of international creative development. Meanwhile, Matt Cerniss, formerly president and general manager of WGN America and Tribune Studios, has signed up to oversee development.

The big names will have big money to play with, as Apple has set aside a US$1bn war chest for content, and has already given a two-season order to a drama executive-produced by and starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon and started rebooting Steven Spielberg’s science fiction series Amazing Stories.

Netflix growth, controversy
It seemed the growth of Netflix knew no bounds in 2017. In October, the streamer announced it would splurge a further US$8bn on content in 2018 and was on track to exceed US$11bn in revenues for 2017.

House of Cards

It was a year in which it struck a further blow for OTT services against traditional linear broadcasters when it tempted Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes away from ABC in August and acquired comic book writer Mark Millar’s Millarworld that same month.

It started the year with VP of original content Cindy Holland announcing a serious push into unscripted with 30 original projects in the works, potentially breathing life into a factual production business currently being strangled in the US by declining profit margins and programme budgets.

But the streamer, which has enjoyed an untarnished ascent to the summit of the content business in recent years, has recently become embroiled in the sex abuse scandal that has gripped the industry.

First, actor Anthony Rapp, followed by a string of other young men, made allegations against House of Cards star Kevin Spacey, causing the streamer to first say the show wouldn’t go on beyond its forthcoming sixth season, then suspend production altogether and finally start re-writing and shooting season six without it’s co-star.

In December, Netflix fired its director of global kids’ content Andy Yeatman after the executive made a controversial remark to one of several women who have accused The Ranch star Danny Masterson of rape.

Business-wise, it also lost Disney content from its service earlier in the year when the Mouse House announced it was planning to go it alone with its own streaming service. Disney’s subsequent deal for assets previously belonging to 21st Century Fox now gives it a 30% stake in Netflix rival Hulu.

In its October statement to shareholders, Netflix said the proliferation of new SVoD platforms around the world means it must focus more attention and money on its own commissions, such as Stranger Things, which was among its many hits in 2017.

Facebook originals
Facebook unveiled its platform for original content produced in partnership with a host of media companies and creators in August.

Ricky Van Veen

Watch is the first dedicated place for Facebook users to view video and will feature live or recorded shortform programming from the likes of A&E, Hearst and National Geographic.

Watch comes as part of the social media giant’s push to create a community of programme makers. It has been trialling an ad-selling service called Audience Direct that would allow creators to sell space directly to brands.

Earlier in the year it hired MTV exec VP of scripted development Mina Lefevre as head of original content development, reporting to video content chief Ricky Van Veen, who was hired last year from CollegeHumour. Original commissions have been steadily added throughout 2017.

Major League Baseball games will also be offered once a week on Facebook, while other programming includes Tastemade’s Kitchen Little, which features kids who watch a how-to video of a recipe before instructing professional chefs in making it.

BBC Studios, Worldwide to merge
The year ended with the BBC announcing it was merging its production business BBC Studios with its commercial arm BBC Worldwide (BBCWW).

The transition, which will be complete by April next year, will bring its production, distribution, investment in third-party prodcos and foreign channels business together under one entity, which will be known as BBC Studios.

The new group will be led by CEO Tim Davie, currently CEO of BBCWW. Mark Linsey, the current director of BBC Studios, will be chief creative officer. The restructure follows the decision to relax production quotas and run the BBC’s in-house production as a commercial business, capable of competing for commissions from rival broadcasters, which was first mooted in 2015.

It was an interesting move at the end of another challenging year for the UK pubcaster, which faced a torrent of criticism in July when the publication of pay rates for its senior talent and execs revealed a huge gap between men and women.

The corporation also announced over the summer it was dropping its children’s channel controller roles, resulting in the departure of CBeebies boss Kay Benbow and a new job for CBBC controller Cheryl Taylor.

An additional £34m (US$44m) has been promised for kids’ content but this will increasingly be focused on digital productions, with fewer series commissioned for linear.

Discovery agrees Scripps deal
The biggest news in unscripted came in July when Discovery Communications agreed a US$14.6bn deal to acquire Scripps Networks Interactive (SNI).

David Zaslav

The agreement is still making its way through regulatory checks and is expected to conclude early in 2018, ending years of speculation about potential buyers for the Knoxville-based cablenet operator, which is behind brands including HGTV, DIY Network and Food Network.

As well as US and international networks such as Travel Channel, Cooking Channel and Great American Country, the deal brings in Polish commercial broadcaster TVN, pan-regional Asian Food Channel and a 50% stake in UKTV, shared with BBC Worldwide in the UK.

While it may seem odd to be investing in cable channels just as subscriptions fall away and budgets get tightened, Discovery’s CEO David Zaslav told C21 in October that the move was all about IP and Scripps’ library of 300,000 hours that hasn’t been exploited globally. The fall-out, executive departures and the future of UKTV’s ownership after the deal will be worth watching in 2018.

CBS buys Network Ten
US broadcast network CBS took control of Australia’s Network Ten in November after a protracted saga sparked by the commercial channel’s plunge into administration.

The channel called in administrators in June when billionaire shareholders Lachlan Murdoch and Bruce Gordon refused to extend or increase their support for a A$200m (US$151.1m) cash-advance facility.

Ten had already sought to renegotiate output deals with programme suppliers including 21st Century Fox and CBS Studios, which reportedly cost more than A$100m annually. Murdoch owned nearly 8% of Ten and Gordon has a 15% stake through their investment vehicles and both were keen to buy the company. But administrator KordaMentha favoured a rival bid from CBS Studios International, which said it was owed A$843m by the network.

Despite Gordon and Murdoch raising their bid for the channel in September and protesting the administrator’s decision in court, the CBS bid eventually won through.

21st Century Fox subsequently terminated its output deal with the channel, removing staple shows including The Simpsons and Futurama. A host of CBS Studios shows were included in the Ten November upfronts for 2018.

Amazon exodus
Global streamer Amazon finished the year securing a US$250m deal for the rights to produce a small-screen series version of The Lord of the Rings to rival HBO’s Game of Thrones – one of the biggest deals of its type ever done in the content business.

Roy Price

The multi-season commitment was a high at the end of a difficult year for the content side of the business, with Amazon Studios boss Roy Price suspended prior to his resignation over allegations of sexual misconduct.

The head of international productions, Morgan Wandell, had already joined the content revolution at Apple, while head of comedy, drama and VR Joe Lewis and head of factual entertainment Conrad Riggs followed Price out of the door in October.

A new team has since been put in place, with Sharon Tal Yguado overseeing all content, Albert Cheng comedy and Heather Schuster unscripted.

Rise of Hulu
While much of the industry focus has been on Netflix and Amazon in the streaming world, and eyes are now turned towards Apple for 2018, the past 12 months has marked the arrival of Hulu as a serious player.

The Handmaid’s Tale

The service became the first streamer to win a Primetime Emmy for its dystopian drama series The Handmaid’s Tale, unquestionably the show of the year, and will continue to build its burgeoning originals slate with a series remake of classic romcom Four Weddings and a Funeral next year.

In May, it announced it would be doubling its investment in originals and exclusively licensed content from around US$2bn in 2016, and at the same time greenlit a second season of The Handmaid’s Tale.

It did lose CEO Mike Hopkins to Sony in October but swiftly named Randy Freer, president and chief operating officer of Fox Networks Group, as his replacement.

The Disney takeover of assets belonging to 21st Century Fox gives the Mouse House a 30% stake in the streamer, which to this point has been US-based only. Given Disney previously pulled its content from Netflix citing a desire to go it alone in the SVoD world, could Hulu prove to be the tank Disney parks on the lawn of the global streamers in 2018?

Channel 4 upheaval
The winds of change blew through the UK’s commercially funded public broadcaster Channel 4 this year, starting with CEO David Abraham announcing he would leave the network after seven years in March.

Jay Hunt

It had long been tipped that chief creative officer Jay Hunt was being lined up to step into his shoes, with her deputy, Ralph Lee, taking over programming, but when former Shine CEO Alex Mahon got the top job in June, it set off a chain reaction that has seen many of C4’s leading execs depart.

Hunt stepped down after five years in charge, which began with harsh criticism but ended with much acclaim for turning the network around post-Big Brother. This involved commissioning break-out unscripted hits like Gogglebox and First Dates, headline-grabbing drama like National Treasure and AMC-coproduction Humans, and nabbing The Great British Bake Off from the BBC.

Hunt, a former controller of BBC1, subsequently resurfaced at Apple, while Mahon and C4 went left-field for her replacement, bringing in the editor of BBC2’s Newsnight programme, Ian Katz, who has never held a commissioning role before.

His first task will be to replenish an exec team that has lost deputy head of features Alex Menzies, head of the indie growth fund Laura Franses, specialist factual boss John Hay, science and specialist factual commissioning editor Sara Ramsden, head of comedy Phil Clarke, deputy head of comedy Nerys Evans, and factual execs Colin Barr and Amy Flanagan. Lee, having been overlooked for the top job, will also depart in January.

Passing of legends
The television industry was rocked in September by the loss of two of its finest.

David Lyle

David Lyle lost his battle with cancer at the age of 67, then just days later Annie Wegelius passed at 58.

Lyle was the man who took American Idol to Fox in the US while president of entertainment at FremantleMedia North America. He finished his career launching Pact US, the American arm of the UK independent producers’ association, after stints heading National Geographic Channels, Fox Look and Fox Reality Channel.

He started his career as a television host in Australia. Lyle was a founder of FRAPA, the formats rights protection agency, which worked with formats veteran Wegelius during her distinguished career.

Annie Wegelius

Wegelius was programme director at Swedish pubcaster SVT from 2007 to 2013. Prior to that, she had been an entrepreneurial part of the TV and media industry, helping develop the format exchange network in the 1990s and forming part of the founding team at Scandinavia’s first commercial broadcaster, TV3, where she was the channel’s first programme director.

The prodco she founded, Wegelius TV, grew into one of the leading indies in the Nordic region and came up with formats such as Big Class Reunion and Friends Forever. She created e-learning firm Kworld, which operated the first privately owned digital terrestrial broadcast channel in Sweden.

Expectation launches
Former ITV and BBC1 controller Peter Fincham and ex-Endemol Shine Group chief Tim Hincks launched their own prodco – described as the “worst-kept secret in television” – with backing from BBCWorldwide in February.

L-R: Tim Hincks, Ros Owino, Nick Mather, Charlie Jones, Sou Pang, Nick Samwell-Smith, Nerys Evans, Kellie Turner and Peter Fincham

The news followed Hincks’ departure from Endemol Shine after 17 years and Fincham’s exit after eight years atop ITV just days later in January.

The pair have since embarked on an ambitious headhunting exercise for staff with the company pitching projects across drama, comedy, factual entertainment, entertainment, reality and factual.

From Channel 4, Nerys Evans has arrived as creative director for comedy and Amy Flanagan took up the same role for factual drama. Former Endemol Shine execs Nick Mather and Nick Samwell-Smith came in as joint creative director for entertainment. Kirstie Macdonald got the drama gig, joining from UK-based World Productions, where she had worked on hit BBC series Line of Duty among other shows.

More recently, Ben Wicks, an executive producer on C4 comedy talkshow The Last Leg, joined as creative director of comedy entertainment, Alexia Edwards came in from Warner Bros Television Production as chief operating officer, and Colin Barr joined from Minnow Films to lead factual.

Commissions already include Ed Balls: My Deep South Road Trip for the BBC and Sky1’s charity football match Game for Grenfell.

Kew Media is born
Kew Media burst into life in February with the acquisition of 10 companies including Content Media Corp (CMC), Frantic Films and Jigsaw Productions.

Peter Sussman

Led by Blue Ice Group co-founder Steven Silver and Alliance Atlantis alum Peter Sussman, the company’s initial spending spree saw it also add Architect Films, Media Headquarters, Bristow Global Media and Our House Media in Toronto as well as Jamie Brown’s Frantic Films in Winnepeg.

The CMC deal gave it a controlling interest in Aito Media in Finland (which it subsequently sold), Campfire Film & Television in LA, Collins Avenue Productions in LA, Jigsaw Productions in New York and Spirit Digital Media in London.

Content was subsequently rebranded while Paul Heaney’s London-based distributor, TCB Media Rights, was picked up for £5.6m (US$7.3m) just prior to Mipcom. Kew also purchased Toronto-based Sienna Films in November. Carrie Stein, who previously headed global production for Entertainment One Television, joined in November to lead its scripted efforts in 2018. One to watch.

WME, IMG merge to form Endeavor Content
The film, scripted TV finance and sales arms of US firms WME and IMG were merged into one content group by parent Endeavor in October.

The Night Manager

Endeavor, formerly WME-IMG, created Endeavor Content by bringing together the two groups, which had collectively financed, packaged and/or sold more than 100 films and TV shows in the previous 12 months.

The companies’ feature film credits include La La Land, Manchester By The Sea and Arrival, while they have also been involved in TV series such as The Night Manager and The Young Pope. Endeavour subsequently partnered with Chernin Entertainment to produce scripted series together.

Sony senior execs change
Sony Pictures Television named Hulu CEO Mike Hopkins as its new chairman in October, fresh from him scoring the first Primetime Emmy for a streaming platform with The Handmaid’s Tale.

Mike Hopkins

It concluded a year of executive change at the summit of Sony’s TV business that started when Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg departed and subsequently resurfaced at Apple. Tony Vinciquerra was appointed as chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment in May, following Michael Lynton’s departure.

Three execs were promoted to new jobs after Erlicht and Van Amburg left while Wayne Garvie was upped to president of international production at SPT more recently.

Blue Ant buys Racat Media
The rapid growth of Blue Ant Media from a Canadian producer and channels operator to global presence continued apace in 2017, most notably with the acquisition of David Haslingden’s Australian Racat Group in May.

The deal included kidcaster ZooMoo Networks, Australia’s Northern Pictures, NHNZ of New Zealand, Beach House Pictures of Singapore and mobile game developer and publisher Runaway Play in New Zealand.

By November, the company was hiring for a global networks division, which will expand its channels business in 2018.

With growth has come departures though, with the long-serving Vanessa Case and, more recently, Raj Khanna exiting.

Crozier leaves but ITV growth continues

Adam Crozier

The consolidation of the production sector, particularly in the UK, showed no signs of abating.

ITV Studios remained active, barely missing a beat despite the news CEO Adam Crozier would be leaving to be replaced by EasyJet’s Carolyn McCall. The production arm of the UK commercial broadcaster launched a TV prodco joint venture with feature film specialist Blumhouse at MipTV, bought out UK drama producer World Productions and took stakes in Italy’s Cattleya, Sweden’s Elk and the nascent Apple Tree outfit, launched by the former drama team at Danish pubcaster DR.

How you get paid
As the budgets for drama series escalate rapidly – Netflix’s The Crown coming in at US$100m – so the deals that see them produced will have to change.

Danny Cohen

Even the streamer swill struggle to continue commissioning at that level – despite Amazon’s eye-watering Lord of the Rings deal – and the linear channels have no chance. Back in April, immediately prior to and after MipTV, the issue of how things get financed and how you get paid for them was at the forefront with the creation of a number of new funds and groups designed to finance scripted content.

Atrium TV was launched in Cannes by former Sony chairman Sir Howard Stringer, DRG CEO Jeremy Fox and MTG executive VP and head of programming and content development Jakob Mejlhede.

That followed a US$125m fund launched by Barclays and, the most eye-catching of all, Benchmark Television, which was launched by BBC Worldwide (BBCWW), Danny Cohen’s Access Entertainment and UK prodco Lookout Point in January.

BBCWW and European film and TV outfit Anton later launched a £150m (US$190m) drama investment partnership that will greenlight premium UK scripted series with international potential.

Queen of Nordic noir strikes out
Danish public broadcaster DR found its scripted department gutted in October, with veteran head of drama Piv Bernth and her deputy Lars Hermann leaving with the rest of their team to start a new indie called Apple Tree Productions.

Piv Bernth

Bernth spent 30 years at DR, the last five heading the scripted department where she commissioned The Killing, the series credited with a start of the global Nordic Noir boom which continues today. C21 subsequently revealed that ITV would be investing in Bernth’s new start-up.

While frontrunners to lead DR’s drama, including Hanne Palmquist, Katrine Vogelsang, Claus Ladegaard and Thomas Gammeltoft, boast impressive pedigrees, it’s still a big ask to restock such a well performing department from scratch. Anders Toft Andersen (Follow The Money), Karoline Leth (The Legacy) and Dorthe Riis Lauridsen (Freja) have all also left DR to join Bernth at her new venture.

Endemol Shine exits Turkey
Endemol Shine Group (ESG) pulled out of Turkey in July after the production giant’s operating company in the country filed for insolvency – a story broken exclusively by C21.

Gokhan Tatarer

ESG dismissed two top execs at Endemol Shine Turkey in June after uncovering what it described as “serious issues” with local management.

Gökhan Tatarer, CEO of Endemol Shine Turkey, and Hakan Eren, chief commercial officer, were both removed after ESG reviewed its business in the country. The pair denied any wrongdoing and are pursuing their own legal action against ESG.

Attempts were made to find a buyer for the firm, with several parties interested, but ESG decided insolvency was the only “viable” option. ESG has subsequently been involved is in a legal dispute with Turkish producer Oyku Films over alleged unpaid royalties for hit drama Intersection.

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