Cracking down on co-productions

Alastair Fothergill, producer of Netflix’s Our Planet, has warned that SVOD players “will not consider co-productions” around natural history in the future as the digital giants look to plant their flags in the genre. Manori Ravindran reports

The veteran natural history producer, who left the BBC’s Natural History Unit (NHU) in 2012 to set up Silverback Films, recently suggested to the House of Lords Communications Committee during an evidence session exploring producers’ relationships with digital players that SVOD domination is inevitable given the lack of investment from domestic broadcasters.

“Netflix has only done one big series, but it’ll go for more because of the success of this last one, and Apple has just commissioned three natural history series,” he says.

One of Apple’s natural history projects is an NHU-produced collaboration between Planet Earth II executive producer Michael Gunton and Iron Man director Jon Favreau that will use CGI to imagine the last days of the dinosaurs.

Fothergill, whose prodco delivered Netflix’s first landmark natural history project with Our Planet, says SVODs are “very welcome” in a landscape where the content spends of domestic broadcasters remain static.

“Where the BBC is most at threat is that it hasn’t increased budgets at all. When I did Blue Planet, half the budget came from the BBC. Now, [its budgets] for series are less than 20%,” says the producer.

“We are now working on a series with Netflix that I don’t think the BBC or BBC Studios would have been able to afford.” Alastair Fothergill

“When you have a BBC commission, BBC Studios comes in and we tend to be very happy to co-produce with the company because it is one of the best distributors of natural history in the world. But we are now working on a series with Netflix that I don’t think the BBC or BBC Studios would have been able to afford.”

Fothergill points out that “the reason Netflix likes natural history is because it is globally attractive. I don’t think any of the big SVODs talking to us about natural history will consider a co-production.”

However, he notes that, overall, the natural history business in the UK “is in very fine health” with the “BBC order book full until 2023”, with most work going to the BBC NHU.

“Players like Discovery and Nat Geo who had gone away from high-quality natural history are returning to it. Bristol is booming with work from BBC and international clients,” he says.

Fothergill stresses that the “key thing” that will keep the BBC competitive with the global SVODs is the health of the iPlayer catch-up service, which could soon receive a longer window.

The producer gives the example of Silverback’s series The Hunt for BBC One, which “did very well on the BBC, [but] after 30 days, disappeared from iPlayer”.

“And no one buys DVDs anymore, so the only place you can find it is on Netflix,” he says, noting that the corporation “has to crack iPlayer”.

“It could be just as competitive, but at the moment, it is not as attractive as Netflix,” Fothergill adds.

“The BBC and other PSBs would say they are trying hard to get those [young] audiences back. But they haven’t grown up with the BBC like some of us – they are from an online world. We have to be aware of the way they access the content.”