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Theme Festival - Unscripted Programming

Programming Profile

Distributors line up affordable factual as budgets fall


With cash-strapped broadcasters turning away from original commissions and towards acquisitions, this could be a good time to be a distributor. But how are the independent sales houses not attached to channels or large production groups keeping a pipeline of content flowing and what models are they using to pay for it?


Looking around the content business at the moment, you’d be forgiven for thinking we’re in the midst of some doomsday, extinction event – and perhaps we are.


Not absolutely everybody is having a terrible time of it, though. For now, schedules and streaming services still need content to stock their shelves and if there isn’t the money to commission new originals then the obvious stop-gap is in acquisitions.



Aussie Gold Hunters Series 9

That means it’s a relatively good time for distributors that have catalogues of content to offer embattled channels in bulk and at affordable prices. However, if nobody has any money to commission anything new, where are the independent distributors that aren’t related to channels or large groups of producers going to get goods to stock their shelves for next year and beyond?


It was perhaps Lilla Hurst, global head of acquisitions and content strategy at Blue Ant Media, who summed up the situation best when talking to C21 during the recent London TV Screenings.


“It would be disingenuous for me as a distributor to say it’s really tough right now because actually it’s quite good for us purely while channels are leaning heavily into acquisitions rather than commissioning originals,” Hurst says. They’re coming to us asking for help and a higher volume of content than they did before.


“That said, the nuances of those deals, the time it’s taking to close those deals, has definitely stretched because the manpower at those channels in things like business affairs is stretched. We’re being leaned on increasingly to invest and find ways in which we can do that with the producers we work with.


Better Date Than Never

“If I was a producer it would be really tough out there right now and depending on how established I was and what content I make the answer would be varying degrees of awful. That’s why we can’t say it’s wonderful because what about our pipeline? Where does that come from?”


Hurst believes there are things channels could be doing now that wouldn’t cost them anything but would help the dire situation, such as not insisting on worldwide premiere dates or exclusivity when not fully funding the project. For now, though, who’s got what content to sell and what models are they using to pay for it?


Abacus Media Rights has quickly become one of the main players in independent distribution since former Kew Media exec Jonathan Ford launched the company in 2020. Its new slate includes a selection of single documentaries on world affairs including Israel/Gaza (One Day in October, The Israel Hamas War: The People’s Story), Russia/Ukraine (The Swallows Will Return), the 2024 US Presidential election (The Steal) as well as event pieces like Dynamo Is Dead and topical specials such as Barbie: Uncovered.


Head of acquisitions Will Stapley says: “It’s a very challenging, thinning market with studios and streamers hesitant on deals in the first half of the year. With the desperate mantra of ‘stay alive till 2025’ echoing around the production sector, or the more optimistic ‘thrive in 2025’, depending on who you talk to – times are tough right now. We are doing our best to support our producer partners through gap financing, pre-sale jigsaw funding and offering market intel and advice wherever helpful. But there are signs of hope with the ad market picking up a little in Q1 and some buyers’ frozen budgets beginning to thaw.


Churchill’s Forgotten War

“Everyone in the market is having to be creative in finding cost-effective models for funding productions, whether through gap financing, pre-sales, distribution advances or attaching brands, private equity, grants or soft money via international coproductions. On occasions we bring in third-party financiers to help fund bigger budgets. We are seeing some producers offsetting expensive development costs through creating digital shorts and podcasts that can then be pivoted into TV features/series,” he continues.


“Distributors are now an essential part of the ecosystem rather than an afterthought. We are having conversations with producers right at the inception of an idea, offering market intel and both creative and commercial advice, helping piece together financing and on occasions partnering them up with the anchor broadcaster/s and then seeing the project through to delivery and sales.”


London-based Cineflix Rights has recently added Channel 4 series Chateau DIY from Spark Media as part of a strategic aim to acquire aspirational and inspirational UK lifestyle brands with global appeal. Another C4 series, Amanda Owen’s Farming Lives from Wise Owl Films, is also on the slate along with the company’s first collaboration with France’s Pernel Media for historical docudrama Ramses the Great: King of Ancient Egypt, and Channel 5 series Sue Perkins into Alaska from Chalkboard and Motion Content.


Richard Life, Cineflix Rights’ senior VP of acquisitions and coproductions, says: “We do find that the financial pressures faced by buyers means we have to be more creative in our deal-making. It is about understanding our buyers’ needs and working with them to offer solutions in what is a challenging environment for the whole industry.


Dynamo is Dead


“The rapid rise of FAST has also been a tremendous opportunity for us. Cineflix has launched five new channels and after only one year since moving into the channel business, we are already in profit. We expect this side of our distribution business to impact more and more on our unscripted acquisition decisions,” Life adds.

“Being owned by a Canadian company, Cineflix Media, has meant we have been able to tap into the soft money available in Canada for producers to help finance shows. It is a tremendous advantage for Canadian independent producers and allows us to greenlight shows with just small licence fees from Canada, one or two pre-sales from international buyers, notably the UK, and investment from us. Examples of these include Ancient Bodies: Mysteries Revealed from Farpoint Films, Mysterious Islands from Shark Teeth Films and Secret Nazi Science from Go Button Media.


“All of the above-mentioned series were effectively greenlit by us along with local Canadian network Super Channel. As part of that process and as a major investor, we take a significant role in the pre-production and the editorial sign-off. That said, we remain fairly hands-off and completely trust our production partners to deliver high quality and the significant sales we have already made on these shows before even full delivery and to major network buyers is proof that this model works well. As a result of this success, we intend to increase the number of hours we invest in over the next two years.”


London-based Orange Smarty is shopping a slate that includes Channel 5 doc The Titan Sub Disaster: Minute by Minute and travelogue Michael Palin: This is Nigeria, as well as BBC2 factual shows Andi Oliver’s Fabulous Feast and Big Zuu Goes to Mecca.


Help We Bought a Hotel

CEO Karen Young says: “If there was ever a time where experience and knowledge counted, it is now. For the right content the opportunities are endless. We are not just talking new content; a back catalogue now offers a huge amount of value in an ever-expanding climate of consumption. With so much change and a landscape that continually moves, the key is having the ability to navigate rights, reach the right people and keep abreast of channel changes and programming demands.


“Broadcasters’ buying needs are changing, there is an accelerated focus on digital-first content, and this means acquiring programmes that can easily translate across multiple platforms. Budgets are stretched and the content needs to work hard, bringing rewards in terms of audience share, and marketing headlines.


“The funding methods haven’t changed, we have always been in the market for coproductions, pre-sales and deficit-financing. What has changed is the increased demand in the amount of content that needs to be financed outside of the traditional commissioning routes. The role of the distributor has become intrinsic to the actual content being shaped, financed and ultimately produced. As an independent, we have invested more than half a million pounds in the last three months alone.”


The distribution arm of Amsterdam- and London-based group Off The Fence is leaning into history with series like Flying Knights, which looks at the history of aviation and is timed to coincide with Steven Spielberg’s series Masters of the Air. On the wildlife side they have Game of Leopard Thrones and Great Species of Africa, bringing some traditional blue-chip natural history to the slate.


Stacey Dooley Sleeps Over USA

Dylan Casella, the company’s head of acquisitions and coproductions, says: “It is tricky out there at the moment, the disappearance of so many players in the US market, and budget reductions across the world are definitely causing the beginning of a drought on the content side.


“But we’re also starting to see the correction and overhaul of the traditional side of the business. There are some positive moves with the rise of FAST channels, even leading to some cost-effective commissions with content that has the potential to leap back over to traditional broadcast. We’re trying to get creative and find alternative ways of financing, new ways of collaborating with partners to still be able to produce, acquire and finance/license content. It’s generally understood that this is not just a phase, the market is changing and we need to make sure we stay on top of these changes and adapt.


“In terms of financing, we’ve been working for a while to find financing models that don’t always rely on a big-ticket lead broadcaster. It is becoming increasingly rare to find those large commissions as everybody knows, so the financing jigsaw puzzle now takes a number of pieces to get to the finished picture. Whether that’s local tax incentives and government support initiatives in certain ‘soft-money’ territories, NGO or charitable foundation support, commercial or branded money, these additional funding streams can mean you only need a few smaller pre-sales to get the wheels in motion.


“We’re already seeing the impact of the last 12 months on catalogues this year. As budgets decrease across the board, we will need to see a fundamental correction in how broadcasters and platforms manage rights. We need a much more generous attitude towards sharing rights as the whole industry shifts to a more coproduction focused approach. More flexibility on rights plus an open mind around editorial should open the door to greenlight more productions at a time when the entire global community really needs it.”


The Steal

The UK’s Hat Trick International has added a mixture of factual and scripted from both within the Hat Trick Group and from third party producers. Highlights include NZ comedy drama Spinal Destination, Channel 4 ratings hit Michael Mosley’s Secrets of Your Big Shop and upcoming BBC3 series Inside Ibiza with Zara McDermott.


Director of sales Sarah Tong says: “It’s tough, both in finding programming to represent that’s affordable (as commissioners are wanting big programme budgets but not putting in a decent proportion) as well as acquisitions budgets being squeezed. However, there are still opportunities for all genres, we’re just having to work harder to find (and fund) those gaps.


“We’re still looking at the advance model as well as putting together coproductions or enhanced pre-sales. We’re always open to innovation so will work with producers on appropriate ad-funded models that work for the international market. We’re getting involved earlier in the process and working with producers to ensure programming can work for an international market, not just the local commissioner. It’s more important than ever for producers to work with distributors closely as they will not get programming funded by the commissioning broadcaster alone so need to make sure their shows work in the international market – it’s not just for profit but to cover the budget in the majority of programmes.”


London’s DCD Rights is heading into MipTV with a mix of returning factual entertainment franchises, including Secrets of the London Underground, history series Treasures with Bettany Hughes and medical obdoc First Time Medics. In addition, it’s launching several new music documentaries and performances from artists including Jimi Hendrix and a Christmas concert from Elvis Presley’s home Graceland.


The Suitcase Murders

Rich Barker, the company’s head of sales, says: “The market is feeling the pressure from different angles – tighter budgets due to pressure on advertising, evolving viewer habits as on-demand becomes the norm and linear services facing ever increasing competition from streaming platforms. Great content will always find a home and as buyers become more cautious in an uncertain market, returning and reliable franchises are a safe-haven in their schedules.


“We are still witnessing a risk averse strategy from buyers, but tentpole franchises such as Aussie Gold Hunters have repeatedly filled schedules with new series and repeats.


“DCDR has always taken an early role in creating and financing series, across both drama and factual; we bring vital casting knowledge, editorial expertise and the knowledge to bring co-production partners onboard in the very early stages. Gone are the days of fully or partly commissioned programming – we now actively engage with producers to bring us content in order to collaborate with key partners, as early as possible. We aim to be a fundamental part of the process with both our acquisitions and sales teams contributing with strategic and financial input along with creativity on how to bring a project to life.”


At MipTV, the sales arm of Woodcut Media is launching a new two-part doc special Titanic In Colour, featuring contemporary film and stills, and colourised for the first time. It will also be marking the forthcoming WW2 anniversaries with a three-part archive-led series, Surviving World War II, and a two-part special from Picasso Films, Auschwitz: Countdown to Liberation. The company continues to specialise in true crime with new releases The Suitcase Murders and a doc from Good TV called James Bulger: The Trial.


The Tube: Keeping London Moving

Commercial director Koulla Anastasi says: “Distribution is tough in just the same way that all TV is having a tough time at the moment. Our buyers are still out there and seeking quality factual content, but volumes are perhaps not as large as they may have been previously, license fees are scrutinised more than even or some channels want to buy, just not at the moment.


“Top-up investment into Woodcut and third-party programming will continue through 2024 but we’re also self-financing one or two productions this year to increase our volumes. Since we’re a producer-distributor and our production arm is in good shape with new projects coming through, we’re somewhat protected from the scramble for content. However, we’re very mindful that the new content flow needs to be regular and plentiful so self-financing is a way of ensuring there is always something new on our slate.”


Tinopolis-backed UK distributor Passion Distribution has a broad slate typified by one-off history doc Churchill’s Forgotten War at one end of the spectrum and True North’s six-part Help! We Bought A Hotel at the other. Middlechild’s six-part obsdoc The Tube: Keeping London Moving is also included along with returning series such as Better Date Than Never, produced by Northern Pictures and aired on ABC Australia. Other returning series include Stacey Dooley Sleeps Over USA and Coastguard: Search & Rescue SOS.


Emmanuelle Namiech, CEO at Passion Distribution, says: “The polarisation between premium event television on the one hand and returnable cost-effective long-running shows on the other has never been greater and the demand for mid-range content is significantly reducing. Broadcasters are looking to offer their audience arresting, stand-out premium must-watch TV combined with the familiar, well-established and well-liked returnable franchises that are produced on high volume at a more cost-effective rate.


Titanic in Colour

“Acquisitions of unscripted shows that can be repurposed across different platforms and formats are becoming increasingly popular. This allows broadcasters and streaming platforms to maximise the reach and monetisation potential of acquired content.


“There is a misconception that lack of commissioning has resulted in a surge in acquisitions. The reality is that there is an overall increased pressure on programming budgets, whether for commissioning new content or acquiring existing titles. To address this, we’re diversifying our catalogue and actively seeking out new content opportunities while navigating budget pressures and market dynamics.”


Germany’s Quintus Media has a slate largely populated by in-house Quintus Studios productions for Quintus Channel Networks where access-driven series are working well. These include Mission to Collision – Flying Trucks and Missing Presumed Dead in partnership with A+E Networks.


MD Gerrit Kemming says: “The legacy TV market is tough, especially for pre-sales and producers. Classic broadcasters not only have smaller budgets, but producers are often asked to cashflow full productions. This is a real challenge for those who don’t have a long-running cash-cow format and leaves very little room for delays and unforeseen circumstances. This is challenging in the world of documentary, especially crime and current affairs. Partnerships and new ways of thinking have never been more important. It’s crucial to understand each other’s positions, priorities and how we can make it work for all parties involved.


Treasures With Bettany Hughes

“Besides being even more focused on various pre-sale or coproduction financing models to compensate the decreasing budgets per partner, our dominant model to finance Quintus Originals is coproduction with the producers. In this model we share risk and investment as well as all revenues with the producer,” he says.


“We put money, global distribution and the revenue potential of Quintus Channel Networks on the table in return for a producer calculation that is reduced to the absolute minimum without compromising on the quality. That way, we as the broadcaster/distributor and the producer are sitting 100% in the same boat with the same goal of creating the best possible film that generates the strongest possible revenues. That leads to the highest possible motivation for everyone and really strong results.”