By Ed Waller 24-08-2016
For those in the UK television sector, late August traditionally means Edinburgh and the industry focus shifts northwards to the Scottish capital, where festivals galore are taking place: TV, film and comedy, among others.
This year, thanks to the June referendum, there’s a Brexit-shaped shadow looming over proceedings. So the usual Edinburgh job-hunting, BBC-bashing and drunken pitching might even give way to a few angst-ridden rants about how the world will end if we leave the EU (see our Cover Story in the August issue of C21 International and the C21 Pro Brexit Report for more on that).
One thing that usually isn’t discussed, however, is international distribution. Things are changing, particularly as drama budgets soar and co-finance becomes necessary, but distributors are usually sidelined. Such is the focus on the production and broadcast industries, execs from the distribution sector are usually seen as glorified sales folks in shiny suits, forever lugging boxes of promotional cardboard around far-flung trade fairs.
This approach belies the distribution sector’s healthy and growing contribution to UK TV’s bottom line. According to the UK Television Exports Survey, commissioned from TRP Research by ITV Studios, BBC Worldwide and indie trade body Pact, international sales generated £1.2bn (US$1.6bn) in 2014/15.
The survey found that exports of finished TV programming remained the UK’s largest source of TV revenue, bringing in £689m that year. Dramas, such as bestsellers Downton Abbey and Doctor Who, were a key driver of British export success in 2014/15, with respondents reporting that this genre, although relatively small in size, sold to the greatest number of territories.
And, despite what producers might think about content being king, those shows don’t sell themselves.
This view also overlooks the growing role of distributors in the development and production processes. For many years, distribution companies have played a major part in financing development and production of shows to ensure they have product they can sell abroad, not just a collection of widgets that work only in the UK – as was the case some years ago.
And it’s often global demand for UK content that leads to heightened M&A interest in UK indies, which has allowed many an indie to retire gracefully or otherwise, and means many are owned or backed by distributors these days. Ironically, that in turn has killed off the once-vibrant bidding process for shows, as international rights to most are already taken by the parents.
And as coproduction becomes more important to the hitherto somewhat insular and self-contained UK television industry, distributors are already playing a bigger role in producers’ lives. No longer are they just somewhere to go for sales commission fees or distribution guarantees – now they can also provide money much earlier in the cycle.
Due to growing competition for programme rights, distributors are finding themselves investing much earlier in the production process, often financing script development or non-broadcast pilots long before any broadcasters are attached and funding first-look deals in the hope that something valuable might emerge later.
As broadcasters try to de-risk their programming decisions by moving into coproduction and other tactics, it seems distributors have had to shoulder more risk so projects can get off the ground and so their supply lines don’t break down. With that, for some, comes more editorial input and notes on scripts.
Hence the emergence of a new breed of exec production company that doesn’t actually produce shows and doesn’t actually distribute shows but has enormous creative input on the scripts, enjoys great connections to talent and knows where a lot of international money, soft or hard, is buried and who to chat up in order to get some of it.
But talk to some far-sighted indies and they see producers and distributors allying not initially with broadcasters but with high-net-worth individuals – i.e. rich people who fancy a few trips to Hollywood – to fully finance shows. Broadcasters, once the gate-keepers of the TV industry, then only get their hands on the shows as licensees of a finished product.
Due to the potential for rights-retention, that future isn’t too far away, especially if bigger players from far more lucrative industries adjacent to traditional broadcasting get into TV – sorry, ‘content’ – production. The likes of Vodafone, Google, Samsung or Facebook wouldn’t really need cash from broadcasters to get high-end dramas off the ground.
So it’s good to see more ‘sales folks’ on panels up at Edinburgh this year. The irony is that most of their colleagues will be too busy preparing for Mipcom to attend.