Genre-bending National Geographic series Mars married golden age scripted TV with documentary, Making a Murderer became watercooler (internet) TV and reinvigorated the true crime genre, and Leonardo DiCaprio brought some A-list movie star power to feature docs.
Industry folk almost all cited one show when asked about the factual moment of the year. TBI usually asks execs not to mention their own shows in our review pieces, but in this case we’ve made an exception.
The TV moment of the year? “The global audience reaction to Planet Earth II,” says Paul Dempsey, president, global markets, BBC Worldwide.
“I can’t think of any other follow-on series that has made such an impact, not only in the UK but internationally, ten years after the original. It’s an absolutely stunning production that had audiences captivated: witness the famous iguana/racer snake sequence, which has nearly 100 million views in China alone.”
The show, which features stories of incredible wildlife and terrains, sold extensively internationally and delivered massive Sunday evening primetime ratings for the BBC. It was the top show on the BBC’s iPlayer catch-up service.
The signs of excitement were there back in February at Worldwide’s Showcase sales extravaganza. A room full of buyers erupted during a screening in Liverpool, giving the series and narrator David Attenborough an impromptu ovation.
The show was spectacular and groundbreaking in terms of filming techniques, but also showed docs can compete with talent show TV. The moment of the year was “Planet Earth II attracting more viewers in the 16-34 age bracket than The X Factor,” says Adam Bullmore, managing director of UK indie October Films.
Cineflix Rights boss Chris Bonney says the series helped underline the popular appeal of factual. “While the spotlight has been on scripted series, it’s worth remembering that some of the standout shows for ratings were factual,” he says.
Bonney adds that 2016 was a good year for factual distributors. “The growth of new thematic channels alongside the increase in demand from SVOD platforms for factual content is leading to an increasingly competitive market and therefore strong demand from buyers for factual programming,” he says.
“Factual and factual entertainment programming have never been more in vogue,” adds Content Media’s president of distribution, Greg Phillips. “Big stories in riveting crime documentaries, engaging political debate, 4K wildlife content in all its splendor and high-profile music features have never been this gripping. 2016 was a standout year for great documentary making.”
The Great British Bake Off probably created the most column inches in the trade press this year, in the UK at least, while Netflix’s Making a Murderer was the other show making the news, and one which reinvigorated the crime genre.
In terms of industry politics, Love Productions stole the headlines with the news that the Great British Bake Off was moving from the BBC to Channel 4.
There was a great deal of hand-wringing and no shortage of ill feeling – played out on stage at the RTS conference in London in the summer – but money talks, and Channel 4’s £75 million (US$93 million) was enough to seal a three-season deal for the cooking competition show.
Cineflix’s Bonney says it was a seismic event this year. “The move of Great British Bake Off from the BBC to Channel 4 signified more than anything the shift in power from the distribution platform to the content owner,” he says.
Internationally, it will still be sold by BBC Worldwide, meaning the UK pubcaster can take some comfort, and format and license fees, from channels around.
Earlier in the year Making a Murderer came out of nowhere to be the one of the buzziest shows in TV, sparking numerous other true crime series in the docs space, including some focused on the same case, as well as in scripted as the likes of American Crime Story: The People Vs OJ Simpson forensically examined a real-life case.
Discovery’s ID net responded to Murder with fast turnaround doc Front Page: The Steven Avery Story, which refuted some of the details in the Netflix series.
“We feel compelled to address some critical details missing from the case as presented in the Netflix documentary,” said Henry Schleiff, group president of ID, American Heroes Channel and Destination America, at the time.
Some more cynical commentators suggested Discovery’s move was more about jumping on the coat tails than exposing mistruths.
In the UK, ITV and reality show guru Simon Cowell’s Syco are working on a Making a Murderer-style true crime series. The Investigator: A British Crime Story will feature the former police officer Mark Williams-Thomas, who unmasked presenter Jimmy Saville as a paedophile.
ITV also commissioned a documentary series about the ‘Golden Hour’, the name police give to a critical window of time that is vital to solving murder cases. Potato is producing the series, with managing director Michael Kelpie executive producing. “True crime has become an international phenomenon, with the success of The Jinx and Making a Murderer,” said Kelpie.
At the highest end of the scale, factual projects could sit alongside big-ticket drama. “Epic and international factual feels like it is beginning to take a place alongside high-end drama,” says Derren Lawford, joint creative director of Woodcut Media.
Nat Geo’s Mars took the best of both worlds and came during a period of change for the company – it is now fully owned by Fox. Marketing boss Courteney Monroe became the international channels chief under the new structure announced late last year, and former Fox International Channels exec Ward Platt is in charge of channel distribution and commercial activity.
The pair further rejigged Nat Geo this year, handing Tim Pastore a wider remit. He was president of original programming and production for the US, and now takes that role for all of Nat Geo’s international operations.
In a more noticeable change for viewers National Geographic Channel changed to simply National Geographic in all on- and off-air extensions in the 171 territories in which it broadcasts.
For producers and industry observers Nat Geo’s shift throws up questions. “Nat Geo’s decision or strategy to invest in fewer, but much more expensive and unashamedly high-profile series is a very bold move,” says October Films’ Adam Bullmore.
“It is too early to say whether it will succeed, but it’s a big play. What if the viewing numbers don’t back it up? What if previously loyal producers feel excluded from the big prize? Can it be sustained? What’s plan B?”
Ed Sayer, vice president of production and development, factual, Discovery Networks International, says there will be a fight for eyeballs at the high end of the market next year. “I think we’re going to see a battle for premium factual emerge from some of the big players and we might also see some more consolidation in the market,” he says. “It’s going to be a rollercoaster for some people, but ultimately I’m excited about it as I think there are some real opportunities to be had.”
Discovery had brought Marjorie Kaplan from the US to the UK to run international programming, with Phil Craig departing after eight months. Introducing her at a MIPCOM in late 2015, in a session hosted by TBI, Kaplan set out a vision for ‘creator-led content’.
It didn’t work out like that, however, and Discovery now looks to be focusing its international programming efforts at a regional level. The UK is the company’s biggest international market and it has been clear the Brexit vote has had an impact, but it is, bosses tells TBI, committed to having a sizeable UK base. However, Kaplan has left the business.
In programming terms, the US-listed company is very focused on the Olympics as its Eurosport net gets ready to deliver full coverage of the games for the first time after last years €1.3 billion (US$1.4 billion) rights deal.
Meanwhile, former Discovery and Eurosport exec Arjen Hoekstra was brought in to oversee the global channel roll out of Viceland, the linear channel launched by hipster brand Vice Media, which counts Fox, Disney and A&E among its big-business backers.
The channel has launched in the US, UK, France and Australia among other international territories.
Early numbers were dismal in the UK and US, and 2017 will be the year Vice proves whether it can cut it with the big boys in the channels world, and whether its cool millennial audience want to consume its brand of edgy docs and news in a traditional TV format.
Netflix, and to a lesser extent, Amazon, continue to have an impact in factual TV, but specialist niche services are taking them on. John Hendricks’ CuriosityStream is one – it extended a major production deal with Zed into distribution this year – and Xive is another.
Netflix, however, remains the out-and-out SVOD leader. Was 2016 the year it became the most sigificant channel in the world? “I think it was the year it became the most important global TV network,” says Derren Lawford. “However, it’s not yet the most important TV network in any one country just yet.”
October Films’ Bullmore notes that strictly speaking Netflix can’t have become the most important network, for the simple reason it isn’t a ‘network’. “That’s the really extraordinary thing,” he says. “It became the most-talked-about, sought after broadcaster-funder without having to be a network. All the channels are looking over their shoulders nervously and all the producers are desperately trying to get a meeting.”
As the year started we asked if 2016 would be the year VR rocked.
The question at that point was whether the VR would go the way of 3D, or whether it would become a mainstream consumer proposition. Icon Film’s MD Laura Marshall says it will actually be 2017 will be the year “VR becomes a meaningful story-telling device”.
This year, however, definitely set the stage for the emerging technology, with new hardware rollouts and a range of new content.
TBI moderated an IBC session with former Shine boss Alex Mahon, now running VFX and TV tech firm The Foundry, about VR, and she was clear the medium is here to stay and that in content terms, factual is the place to experiment.
“The obvious place to start is with docs,” she said. “Some of the things we have seen provide empathy to a factual situation. It’s also not that difficult to do factual VR because you don’t have to develop character and the lighting is natural, so some of the tech problems go away.”
Discovery was upfront about the Brexit effect on its business and it has been a turbulent year politically, with the traditionally left-of-centre TV business struggling to assess the impact of the UK’s decision to exit the EU and Donald Trump’s US election win – effectively creating a huge, global shift to the right.
Looking ahead, many programming execs see these and other seismic events informing programming into 2017 and beyond. Several producers note there will be a demand for positive content amid unsettling times for many – a theme that also comes out when speaking to drama and formats executives.
“I think you will see a desire for more uplifting, celebratory and hopeful content,” says Jonathan Chinn, co-founder, Lightbox, which is making hostage doc series Captive for Netflix. “This year was unsettling and destabilising for a lot of the world and I think people won’t want to see a dystopian view of the world in their entertainment in the near future.”
Factual and natural history can fill the viewing need for both fact-finding and escapism if that is what viewers demand in 2017. “In these uncertain times viewers are also looking for escapism, and factual and especially natural history programming is perfect for this,” says Mark Reynolds, BBC Worldwide’s genre director of factual.
“They also want to understand the world in all its aspects and documentaries play a key role in delivering this. We have seen a new perspective on learning about our planet, both garnering a younger audience using digital, as well as a sense of coming together for shared viewing.“
Some of the events that led to that uncertainty, will however, render predictions useless, according to others. A prediction for the biggest trend of 2017? “That post-Brexit and post-Trump predictions like polling data are almost inevitably going to be wrong,” says October Films’ Bullmore.
Other forecasts finclude more factual-scripted crossovers and more blurring of different programming categories. “I think the innovation in the world of docs and formatted docs has been genuinely exciting this year,” says Seven Wonder’s Jez Lee. “We need to bend more genres in 2017.”
BBC Worldwide’s Dempsey says the blurring of lines will also be seen on a business level. “The strong demand from digital clients for premium content will continue along with more innovative coproduction partnerships between digital, linear, production and distribution companies,” he says.
Discovery remains one of the largest commissioners of factual programming and Sayer says it is on the hunt for long-running returning series.
“More money is being spent on factual than ever before, though it might not feel like that to producers because the market is so fragmented,” he says. “There are more opportunities but perhaps smaller individual budgets on projects.”
Sayer adds that we may be on the cusp of a golden age of factual TV. “The content business continues to grow and there are many new entrants into the factual commissioning space so the next few years could be a golden age for producers,” he says.