There is a general trend toward cautious commissioning among linear broadcasters and SVOD services as they cope with inflation and increased production costs. There is still a place for premium shows, as Cathy Payne, Banijay Rights’ CEO, explains, but commissioners and buyers are looking for a balance of high-end and affordable series. Payne talks to World Screen about consolidation in the industry, evolving financing models and the continued need for innovation and creativity.
WS: I’ve heard that there is more aversion to risk among broadcasters and platforms.
PAYNE: We are operating at a time when all large platforms are reviewing the economics of their operations, and the cost of original content is right at the center of those discussions: What is affordable and sustainable? We have all seen the recent announcements from large studios and platforms and the need to double down on their financials. Reversals of season pickups or cancellations of development [projects] have been widely reported.
Does this mean broadcasters are more risk-averse? No doubt, with more focused spend. Having initial feedback on their SVOD launches, tough decisions have had to be made. Putting that aside, all platforms and broadcasters need content that delivers; it is a question of how they run their commissioning process and what is handled globally or commissioned locally.
WS: How have risk avoidance and caution impacted commissions?
PAYNE: The number of shows that streamers or broadcasters have canceled has been widespread, and as has been widely discussed, the days of commissioning shows just to have volume are gone—it was never sustainable. While we will always see the high-end, premium and expensive original signature pieces (House of the Dragon, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, The Last of Us), the rest of the slate needs to reflect a more affordable price point. How we produce at these price points will require innovation.
WS: In the non-scripted space, is it harder to produce an original idea than a reboot?
PAYNE: Broadcasters and streaming platforms will always look at reboots and originals and how they work. Non-scripted has developed so much in terms of casting that it now competes with scripted for time slots in many territories and can do very well.
There’s been a bit of beating the drum regarding “too many” older formats being recommissioned or that [rebooting] a show is an “easy decision.” But in reality, making these sorts of choices is a far more complex process. Keeping a format alive and seeing it recommissioned needs creative reinvention. We know this from working so intensely on big brands, having creative reviews and looking at what worked here and what worked there, the new endeavors that someone might be doing in this country, sharing that knowledge and benchmarking it against what the tone of the audience is at present. In essence, if you’ve got a non-scripted idea that is scalable and is developed well, there are lots of opportunities for it. The good thing about the non-scripted genre is that it can bring a very focused local tone for a broadcaster and their audience.
Broadcasters and platforms are looking for something with history and awareness, but that format still has to be adapted to work in the current time. If you look at most of the relaunched programs that work, they’ve been given a new lease creatively—they have innovated. Of course, this doesn’t come at the risk of new original ideas, and I see broadcasters and platforms seeking a mixed portfolio. Everyone is always looking for that next big thing, and you can never discount where that may come from.
WS: The costs of producing scripted shows are going up. Do you see a continued need for co-productions?
PAYNE: Co-productions are here to stay, and we are seeing an ever-increasing need for collaboration. Indeed, none of the platforms or broadcasters can afford to have every original fully funded. Our co-production activity in 2022 included the last season of Peaky Blinders, Chloe and Riches with Prime Video, Stonehouse and Three Little Birds with BritBox International and Rogue Heroes with MGM+.
WS: You mentioned that premium shows are much more difficult to finance nowadays. I imagine having a partner is becoming indispensable.
PAYNE: At the premium price point, some domestic commissions cannot proceed without an international partner being secured up front. As a distributor, the increased pressure on providing deficit finance is obvious, and what they can risk is a reflection of where they believe the program will be licensed. Nevertheless, all distributors will have those anomalies where they may step up at a higher level of risk. For us, Rogue Heroes is a good example. However, in the day-to-day, it becomes a pragmatic review of what investment can be provided.
WS: What types of shows continue to perform well?
PAYNE: In scripted, broadcasters and platforms still want those big premium series, but they also want those returning, middle-of-the-road pieces, good crime stories, relationship shows and thrillers. There is always a constant demand for what I call the “super domestic” rather than “premium.”
WS: Everyone is talking about FAST and AVOD. Where do they fit into your distribution sequence?
PAYNE: Both provide new avenues for exploiting libraries and catalog, which makes up most of these channels. Banijay currently runs 21 unique FAST feeds that are syndicated more than 80 times globally, and all of these operate on a revenue-share basis—so AVOD and FAST are part of the distribution life cycle of all content.
Our best-performing titles across AVOD and FAST are those that had an initial strong performance and, therefore, already have audience recognition. As AVOD and FAST develop and more is learned, there will be a greater focus on editorial and less on volume for the sake of volume.
WS: For the most part, are these services still looking for so-called ”comfort food” programming instead of commissioning originals? Is it still mostly library?
PAYNE: It’s mostly library content; however, some services look at commissioning product. From what I see, a lot of what they are commissioning is maybe a spin-off of a franchise that already has some market awareness. Again, budgets need to be affordable.
WS: What are some of the upcoming titles?
PAYNE: We have Domina from Tiger Aspect Productions—a Banijay UK company—coming back for a second season and relaunching. We took over this epic, sweeping drama from Sky Studios and NBC, and this will air on MGM+ (previously known as EPIX) and Sky.
We funded without a partner Steven Knight’s next BBC drama, This Town, from Banijay UK’s Kudos, the production company behind Rogue Heroes.
We also have a four-part series for the BBC called The Sixth Commandment, which is based on a true story about the murder of an elderly man in a quiet English village. This show boasts a stellar cast that includes Timothy Spall, Anne Reid and Sheila Hancock and touches on such an important and relevant topic and something that we are facing now in society—people living longer and loneliness for elderly people. Not everybody has family connections and people who look after them. This show comes from Wild Mercury and True Vision, and Sarah Phelps is the writer. It’s a really powerful piece.
WS: The London TV Screenings are underway. Why is it important for Banijay Rights to be involved?
PAYNE: The London TV Screenings has become one of the events on the calendar. What’s different is that rather than having half-hour meetings at a stand, you showcase all your product in a theater where you present to a personally invited, targeted group of potential licensees. It’s a very intimate, curated event where we can get our talent—producers, writers and cast—to talk to the audience via Q&As on stage. It’s a different way of presenting that works well for that environment.
Across London during [this] week, there will be more than 20 distributors—big indies like us and some smaller ones—screening their shows. Unlike most events, the difference with the London TV Screenings is that it’s run by the distributors. We set it up; it’s our event. As a group, we set the timetable and the agenda, and no one has to pay to attend.