Tom Brisley, co-founder & creative director at Arrow Media, reports back from Austin, Texas on the 2023 edition of Realscreen, which wrapped last week.
It has been a weird time for non-scripted over these last 12 months, what with mergers and layoffs and budgets being squeezed. But to me, the overall mood at Realscreen, taking place this year in the Texan capital of Austin, was about the future being positive.
And it’s just as well, because seeing so many factual producers all in one place always reminds me of how many people the non-fiction sector supports.
Everyone seems to be talking about FAST TV. New platforms come around every few years, but there seems to be a real buzz about Free, Ad-Supported Streaming TV. If you own your own content – either as a distributor, producer or network, it’s a new way to reach audiences by creating your own/new channels. I think we’ll be hearing a lot more about it over the coming months and years.
A few years ago, we were told cable was over. Everyone would migrate to the streamers with all the choice and convenience of watching what you wanted when you wanted. Yet judging by the strong turnout of cable commissioners at Realscreen who were looking to buy, cable is still here and thriving and shows no signs of going away. But those cable networks now have specific needs, so gone are the days when you could send an idea to everyone. Instead, it’s an opportunity to develop deeper relationships with each channel and work with them to deliver what they are looking for.
Nearly every cable channel and streamer I spoke with at Realscreen said that co-productions were back on the table
WBD back in the game?
The Keynote conversation with Kathleen Finch, chairman & chief content officer for the US Network Group at Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD), was packed, with everyone anxious to learn what plans the factual powerhouse had in store. It was a relief to hear from Kathleen that the painful decisions WBD had to take last year were a moment in time and that things are getting back to pace in terms of commissioning.
This year the streamers were a bit scarce at Realscreen, but for those that were there the focus was mainly on limited run series. There are always exceptions to the rule but there seems to be a clear difference emerging between cable and streamer needs, with the latter focusing on short run, high end, documentary series – and fresh ways into iconic stories being the current sweet spot.
Characters for cable
Cable, on the other hand, wants characters. Viewers are ever more sophisticated and savvy and are growing weary of heavily ‘produced’ non-scripted content. Instead, they are looking for authenticity; ‘real people’ in ‘real situations’ – be it a follow doc or expert host led. And there’s nothing like stand out characters to generate noise and attention and drive ratings.
A few years ago, factual producers had to contend with commissioners wanting all rights. The work-for-hire model became the norm. Now though, with budgets being tight, nearly every cable channel and streamer I spoke with at Realscreen said that co-productions were back on the table. If that’s the case, I see it as a win win for everyone. Networks get great content for less money and producers will go the extra mile to hang on to rights.