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TBI Weekly: The Future is Factual – The Top Unscripted Trends of 2018

Weeks after unveiling its long-gestating, multi-million-dollar collaboration with David Attenborough, Netflix made another strong statement in the factual space at this week’s World Congress of Science and Factual Producers (WCSFP) where new recruit Sara Edelson – Los Angeles-based manager for original docs – eschewed the SVOD’s low profile strategy at markets, and met delegates out in the open across the full four days of the Brisbane event.

TBI understands the former Vulcan Productions development exec has been transparent about high-performing natural history on the platform, and is intent on sourcing more projects, alongside premium science and history shows. Crucially, the platform is believed to be increasingly open to international co-productions for high-end factual.

Edelson’s conspicuous presence is an encouraging sign of growing demand for factual content across the SVOD space – further demonstrated by overtures from China’s Tencent, Youku and Bilibili, all of whom courted producers, broadcasters and distributors in Oz. Similarly, broadcasters such as Nat Geo, PBS and NHK were also prominent across World Congress, leveraging the power of live broadcasts and back-end rights.

Read on for top trends from WCSFP.

Tech-led storytelling: 20K is here

NHK natural history commissioner Tetsunori Kekuchi wowed audiences with 8K footage – that’s 20x more information than regular 2K (HD) – from recent productions. One clip showed a diver swimming in a mix of fresh and saltwater, with each body of water clearly distinguished in ultra-high resolution. You had to see it to believe it – though when most viewers will be able to do that remains unclear. Even at WCSFP, the footage was shown on a 2K monitor, representing the almost comical gap between mainstream hardware and pioneering audiovisual tech. Kekuchi bashfully admitted he only had a 2K television at home.

NHK’s science team is also experimenting with 20K, and while Kekuchi isn’t personally involved in those efforts, the exec made a strong case for the scientific value of seeing microscopic details that can provide crucial information about some organisms.

Other cutting-edge tech included Arte France’s 700 Sharks in which a customized ring of 4K GoPro Black cameras captures a shark feed in French Polynesia, and Channel 5’s Nocturnal Britain from Pioneer Productions, which uses new low-light camera technology.

Distributor-led commissioning in robust health

Lilla Hurst, co-founder of co-production broker and distributor Drive, spoke at length about the benefits of distributor-led commissioning, an area in which the business has had a fair amount of success.

Crucially, Hurst noted that the types of commissions to come out of these models are generally low-budget far made for around $100K/hour. “The reason these sorts of series are working for the buyers is because a lot of them have spent a lot of money on premium projects that don’t take a lot of space in their schedules, and they’ve realized they have huge gaps in their schedules and need shows to plug them in.”

Hurst said what distributors such as Drive want to do is give prodcos a “flow of commissions” while they’re working on bigger, tougher commissions. (For more on distributor-led commissioning, click here)

Colourization craze

While Peter Jackson’s First World War doc They Shall Not Grow Old  has recently put the colourization technique on the map, French production company Composite Films has been specializing in the colourization and restoration of black and white footage for years, working on Arrow Media’s America In Color for Smithsonian and Stranger Than Fiction’s Australia In Colour for SBS. CEO Samuel Francois-Steininger told TBI that one minute of colourization can cost between US$3,000-$10,000 and take a number of weeks. The business has a team of 50 working across various projects. The exec described a painstaking research process in order to ensure colours used are accurate, and compared the technique to a “police or forensic investigation”.

Biting the bullet-chat

With 92m monthly active users and 450m page views per day, Chinese digital player Bilibili is fast becoming a top port of call for Western broadcast partners. It is in the works with Nat Geo Wild on doc China’s Hidden Kingdoms and TBI understands the BBC is keen to work with the platform on four-part series China On Stage from Lion TV, building on an existing relationship through which the youth-skewing streamer launched local Top Gear spin-off, Borrowed Gear. One innovation out of Bilibili is “bullet chatting” – a ticker of sorts that runs across the top of its programs, featuring a running commentary from its subscribers. A similar version of the tool is used on Facebook Watch.

Leah Zhang, director of international acquisitions and collaborations for Bilibili, said: “Some may find it distracting, but the more you get used to it, the more you realize you get so many more details. We can also build programming on the back of it. When we aired Planet Earth II, we asked users to guess how many birds were on the screen in one particular scene.”

International is the name of the game

The piecing together of international co-productions for factual has been standard practice for several years, but new broadcasters are coming to the table. As they struggle to keep up with the deep pockets of Netflix and Amazon, channels such as Discovery Science – historically more US-facing – are now engaging in co-productions, such as the Ice Age project with Channel 4. The latter is also on the look-out for more international ideas, and factual boss Danny Horan said a true crime co-production is in the works with an Australian partner. Other promising signs include the entry of cash-flush Chinese digital players Bilibili, Tencent and Youku.

Feel-good shows lead the way

Optomen’s Employable Me for BBC Two was championed as one of the most successful formats of the last two years. The Australian adaptation has been a hit on ABC, which is spinning off its own show called Love On The Spectrum from Northern Pictures. Other feel-good triumphs include Tencent’s 72 Hours, an adaptation of the NHK format that shoots in one place for 72 hours, capturing ordinary people’s lives and emotions, which can be deeply poignant. The crowd-pleaser has racked up around 242m views.

Podcast TV

While adapting podcasts into TV has been in vogue for some time (SVODs such as Amazon are leaders in the field with dramas Lore and Homecoming), factual is now getting into the ring with Australian true crime podcast The Teacher’s Pet getting both drama and unscripted adaptations, as revealed by TBI earlier this week.

Meanwhile, public broadcaster ABC Australia launched true crime podcast Unravel this summer, following its best journalists as they investigate unsolved crimes. The podcast was then turned into a three-part show for the main channel. Josie Mason-Campbell, head of unscripted for ABC, said podcasts as IP are appealing in the true crime space because they provide compelling “present tense” storytelling.

“We knew we couldn’t just rehash a cold case. We didn’t want to do tabloid crime, where there’s a crime per episode,” she said. “It had to be something that said something more about what Australians cared about, and which said more about who we are as a nation.”

Short-form boom

The rise of SVOD has allowed content creators to play with the length of programming, with prominent examples this year including Vox Media’s Explained series for Netflix, in which 15-minute episodes focus on explanations of myriad matters, from female orgasms to K pop. New Zealand producer Kyle Murdoch, MD of Blue Ant-owned NHNZ, advocated for short-form natural history as a quicker way for producers to engage with audiences as they work on longer-term projects.

“We looked at our footage and storytelling and realized that we can repackage and tell the same stories in small packets,” he said. NHNZ has now created a short-form label called Wild Studios to do exactly that. The business recently partnered with Borneo Orangutan Foundation to make Channel 4/Love Nature co-production Orangutan Jungle School. “We created lots of short-form clips, which were then promoted online by the foundation. It engaged a larger audience outside of the TV audience,” he said.

Multi-platform strategies

Most channels and platforms are now creating content for a number of platforms. Nat Geo released its premium series One Strange Rock on Instagram’s IGTV earlier this year, while NHK shot its series Northern Lights with a 20K, 360-degree ‘all sphere’ camera that allowed a range of deliverables, including a flat-screen version in 4K and 8K, a full dome version for planetariums and VR component.

Still room for niche SVODs

While niche SVODs are struggling to survive against the new crush of heavy-hitting SVOD players such as Disney+ (RIP FilmStruck), Dutch distributor Off The Fence revealed more details about their SVOD offering Waterbear Network, which is described as Netflix meets Ebay, Expedia and Groupon. The platform is an interactive SVOD that connects users with NGOs, producers and broadcasters.

“Many countries have multiple NGOs and they don’t connect with each other at all. It’s our ambition to connect all those NGOs together. They are generating footage to put up on the platform,” explained Off The Fence MD Allison Bean.

“You have premium content that you pay for, but there is also content that is free. While Blue Planet could be playing that on main screen, there is a sidebar you can press to see the latest news on conservation and have a live chat with scientists.” If you’re interested in the manta rays you’ve just seen on screen, you can also look up travel options to that area.

The week’s top TBI news…