Few areas of the content business have adapted as quickly over recent years to the vast changes in the business as the distribution sector, with companies large and small adeptly planning and executing savvy strategies to ensure they remain relevant. The effect of the Covid-19 pandemic has again tested this sector’s resolve and it is clear from this year’s findings that the past six months have had a considerable toll on sales. Yet there are positives and an overwhelming optimism that the industry can rebound.
Unscripted product had enjoyed surging demand prior to the pandemic and Covid-19 looks only to have strengthened its popularity among acquisition execs over recent months
When lockdowns first landed outside of China, attention rapidly turned to unscripted content to fill the imminent gaps in schedules.
Home-filmed cookery shows were commissioned, documentaries based on archive footage were hustled through production and innovative producers strapped cameras to dogs to ensure filming could continue.
As the content business comes to terms with Covid-19’s effect on production, the full extent on unscripted distributors is beginning to emerge.
Like its scripted sibling, the pandemic affected different sales firms in myriad ways – but there were few positives to emerge. Almost a quarter of respondents report that Covid-19 has had little impact on their annual revenues this year, while a further quarter said they had noticed a decline of between 10%-25%.
While on the surface that might appear like the sector has escaped to date relatively unscathed, more than a third said they have seen declines in excess of 25%, with almost 10% estimating the losses to fall between 50% and 75%, and 12% reporting a decline of 75% or more.
The reasons are clear, as Giusto Toni, CEO at Europa Media, points out. His business focuses on music documentary programming and performances, meaning the pandemic has had a huge impact on his day-to-day operations. For others, however, the effect of the pandemic on schedules meant more sales opportunities. Fiona Gilroy, content sales & acquisitions director at Flame Distribution in Australia, says that the slow-down of some productions opened opportunities for other content, with her best-sellers including Outback Truckers.
Indeed, a number of respondents add that many of the best-selling genres from their catalogues over the last few months has been male-skewing programming that has been used to plug holes where sports should have been shown. Stalwarts of the unscripted space remain too, however, with crime, specialist factual and history all cited as being major money-makers for distributors.
For many in the sales game, those opportunities have been taken but numerous respondents were quick to point out that while demand for unscripted product might have ticked up, the effect of Covid on advertising-supported networks has been immense, causing “a stranglehold” on broadcasters.
Roger Vanderspikken, COO at Fred Media, adds: “For many distributors, a major issue has been the dwindling pipeline of content through the Covid period. However, our sister company, WTFN, kept developing and filming throughout, so our pipeline remained robust. In addition, we secured some new acquisitions during this time for our autumn slate. The biggest impact, therefore, is probably around the pressure on broadcasters’ budgets.”
As such, perhaps it is little surprise that around a fifth of respondents say their businesses have had to lay off staff as a result of the pandemic, but almost all expect the market to improve over the next 12 months.
And as Vanderspikken continues, “the SVODs have had a ‘good Covid’, with subscriber numbers and revenues up, which may open up some new demand – especially for much-needed quick turn-around content,” although he questions how sustainable this may be as the market settles down. Harriet Armston-Clarke, director at TVF International, agrees that streamers are continuing to expand the role play on the factual side, but Vanderspikken admits he remains cautious. “If we enter a major economic downturn as a result of this period, people may relinquish their subscriptions, with only the strongest SVODs being able to continue spending at the same rate.”
“With innovative ways to keep filming and producing content, the unscripted sector has been able to benefit from increased demand. And with 61% of respondents using digital marketplaces, distributors in this space have shown to have adapted quickly to a digital distribution strategy to enable them to maximise their returns.”
Ian McKee, Founder & CEO of Vuulr
The ongoing nature of the pandemic is also causing issues on the acquisitions side, as well as with getting shows greenlit. This is highlighted by the more than 80% who say decisions on commissions and deals have been delayed, while the sheer unpredictability of how the pandemic will evolve means there are question marks over delivery timelines, leading to risk aversion.
Outside of Covid, the ongoing search for rights and falling ad spot revenues remain key concerns, but it is the financing and investment side of unscripted distribution that was cited by more than half of respondents asked about their most pressing concern.
Like other areas of the content industry, there are also major changes to the way shows are being sold following the almost complete curtailment of the physical event calendar.
More than half of respondents expect to attend fewer events next year than in 2019, partly because of ongoing Covid concerns but also because of the rise of digital platforms. More than 60% of respondents say they now use these services, underlining the rapidly evolving nature of the business.