Spencer Thomas, senior factual producer at CJ E&M, talks to TV Real about the company’s new factual studio.
While CJ E&M has long been producing dramas of all sorts and entertainment shows across a myriad of subgenres, it only recently established a dedicated factual studio. The company tapped Spencer Thomas to head up the efforts, serving as senior factual producer.
He says: “I was recruited to join CJ E&M’s format and content development team, where I worked for one year, but when the opportunity arose to join the recently launched Factual Studio, I made the move because the factual genre aligns with my passion and experience, and I’m excited about the challenge of creating a hub for factual content in Asia.”
There are currently four projects in production or post-production from the studio, covering food, science and sports, natural history and factual entertainment.
Korean Food Alive with Chef Martin Yan explores the question of whether or not it is food that gives Koreans the longest life expectancy in the world. “Korean food is trending globally, but there isn’t much content that makes it accessible to the rest of the world; so, we tasked international star chef Martin Yan to search for the secrets behind Korean cuisine’s healthy and delicious recipes and simplify it in a way that has become Chef Yan’s trademark,” Thomas explains. “The program also serves as a bit of a travelogue, as Chef Yan explores Korea from the northern province where the PyeongChang Winter Olympics are taking place all the way down to Jeju Island off the southern coast.”
An as-yet-untitled sports science program is in the works as well, being co-produced with a Dutch broadcaster. “Embracing the spirit of friendly competition of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Korea, this program offers a lens into the science of speed skating and snowboarding as it relates to Korean and Dutch athletes,” says Thomas. Hosted by Korean-Canadian celebrity Julien Kang and a former Olympic speed skating medalist and current neuroscientist Beorn Nijenhuis, the program “highlights how technological innovations can help athletes gain a competitive edge and demonstrates how science can be applied to train athletes to reach their full potential.”
In the area of natural history, there is Wild Korea. “Natural-history programs have loyal viewers, but in an effort to attract a wider and younger audience, we injected more of CJ E&M’s DNA into the project by employing two pop idols as hosts of the third episode titled ‘Idols in the Wild,’” Thomas explains. “Wild Korea is not just a ‘greatest hits’ of incredible animals and people, it incorporates a storytelling structure based on the duality of Korea’s harsh fault lines and borders: where land meets sea, densely populated cities brush up against rugged wilderness, and the famously hostile border between north and south.”
The 4K Volcano Adventure caps off the slate. “Unlike most volcano docs that present volcanoes as terribly destructive forces, this factual-entertainment program pairs volcanologists with regular people who want a once-in-a-lifetime adventure,” Thomas notes. “Targeting millennials who value experiences and a strong point of view, audiences will see volcanoes up close and personal, camping beside an active volcano and eventually going inside the crater. All of this is captured in stunning 4K cinematography with the help of ‘suicide drones’ to provide intimate access to volcanoes in ways that have never been seen before.”
“There is a strong history of factual content in Korea, but it has never been branded as such, nor has it been exploited internationally, so launching the Factual Studio is a natural progression for CJ E&M,” Thomas tells TV Real. “Previously, factual content was simply labeled ‘documentary,’ but as people in the industry know, documentaries do not represent the entirety of the factual genre. There’s actually a very wide range of factual content; it travels well and is profitable. Over the years, CJ E&M has produced a lot of factual content that has performed very well locally, and now we are focused on expanding and monetizing factual content globally alongside our entertainment shows, dramas and formats.”
The plan for 2018 is to increase the output from the studio, “developing more projects internally for our bouquet of channels and cross-pollinating with more international partners,” he adds. “There are many fantastic technicians and storytellers in Korea, and the Korean government often generously supports local filmmakers by offering seed money or finishing funds for co-productions that have global appeal.”
The core focus for now is to raise awareness on a global level. “We are a ‘first-mover’ in the factual genre in Korea, so we want to create buzzworthy projects that disrupt the landscape and eventually travel to other territories. There are some broadcasters of factual content in Asia, like Discovery or A+E, but the majority of the content they air was created in the West. CJ E&M’s factual content originates in Seoul, South Korea. There’s an incredible opportunity to create factual content with Asia-based stories and perspectives, and our mission is to combine that with core competency that enables us to embrace the younger demographic with our style and tone and relationships with many of Korea’s most talented celebrities. For the time being, we are not investing huge amounts of money, but by partnering with likeminded companies with a proven track record, we can increase our visibility and grow with success.”