FremantleMedia’s Cecile Frot-Coutaz

Cecile-Frot-Coutaz-FremantleMedia-417FremantleMedia produces some of the world’s best-known entertainment brands and has a catalog of more than 20,000 hours of drama, entertainment, factual and children’s programming, which it sells to broadcasters around the world. Currently, digital platforms are among the outlets that have the biggest appetite for content. As CEO, Cecile Frot-Coutaz has helped broaden FremantleMedia’s focus and production capabilities so that it can supply long- and short-form programming to linear and nonlinear platforms.

WS: Given the constant changes in the media landscape, what are some of the biggest shifts that you and your teams have had to make in seeking talent and in producing programming
FROT-COUTAZ: You have to break down the change that we’re seeing into several parts. One of the changes has been in the distribution platforms, and another is the nature of the content. We should think about those aspects differently and separately. On the distribution platform front, we all know what’s happening; it’s the advent of the SVOD services. The main consequence of that is more on the business side in terms of where you launch shows, windowing shows and how shows get financed—those are the main changes there. Separately, the nature of the content that’s being bought by new platforms is different—not all, but some of it is different [from what traditional ad-supported linear channels are buying]. The fact that Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu exist means that there are shows that can be financed now that could not be financed five years ago by advertiser-funded channels. As global subscription platforms, they have different economics, and they look at content in different ways and use it to differentiate themselves. What this means is that on the one hand, the business model evolves, probably for the better, but it’s a little more complex. On the other hand, it stretches the range of shows that can be made. I always say that Narcos would have probably never seen the light of day if it hadn’t been for Netflix because if you’re an English-language network, you probably can’t afford it. If you are a Spanish-language network you can’t afford it either, so you need a global platform like Netflix to take that kind of bet.

WS: How has FremantleMedia diversified its content to produce not only shows for mass audiences but also for more niche audiences?
FROT-COUTAZ: Mostly what we’ve done in terms of addressing the needs of the platforms is we’ve gone into high-end drama, like everyone else. In the last couple of years, we spoke a lot about Deutschland 83, our German show, which did very well internationally and is coming back. At the moment, we are writing the second season, Deutschland 86. The interesting thing with that particular show is that the first season, Deutschland 83, was financed by RTL in Germany as a prime-time series and also by the international market. The second season, 86, will be primarily financed in Germany by Amazon—RTL will have the secondary free-to-air window—and by international sales. That’s a good example of how the funding of that show shifted over the last few years. It’s also a good example of how the environment has had an impact on a show like Deutschland 83.

Our Italian company, Wildside, produced and launched The Young Pope last year, which is written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino and stars Jude Law. That’s an example of a show that is a real auteur piece. It’s ten episodes, but each episode is almost like a movie. It’s incredibly visual with a very complex character and a relatable theme—it’s about faith and loneliness. It’s not something that you put on in the background while you make a cup of tea! It requires your full attention. And again, that’s not a free-to-air show. That’s very much a pay or an SVOD show. It’s probably a show that you wouldn’t have been able to finance or make a few years ago. Wildside is also developing Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels for television, which should go into production at some point later this year. It’s a very raw, honest take on what a friendship between two girls can be—the closeness, love and dependence, but also the jealousy and the slightly darker undercurrent. It explores that incredibly well over a lifetime.

This year we’re also launching American Gods, which will have a worldwide release at the end of April. Within 24 hours it will be on Starz in the U.S. and on Amazon internationally. We’re going to see more and more of these—but again, two years ago, a global release from season one would not have happened.

Those are some examples of things we are doing. Like our competitors, we’re all looking at the same landscape, but this is our response to it. We are trying to offer projects to the market that we feel are talent-driven and unique, coming from people who have a very specific point of view and hopefully will find a very passionate audience.

WS: FremantleMedia has also been active in short-form content for digital platforms.
FROT-COUTAZ: Everyone is learning more and more about what works and what doesn’t work with short-form video, and there are probably more questions than answers. The eyeballs are there, but everybody is struggling at the moment with the monetization formulas. I suspect that in the next 12 to 18 months we will continue to learn more about this space. It’s interesting because there are different creators working in short-form video and a different audience for it, but I think the business model is still challenged and we’ll have to see if the dollars do indeed follow the eyeballs.

WS: FremantleMedia has invested in some production companies recently. How do they complement the existing companies in the group?
FROT-COUTAZ: Some of the investments that we have made have been about [adding to our] pipeline [of content]. We make a minority investment in a company because we believe that they have great creatives and that they are going to deliver shows, whether formats we can produce or finished shows for our distribution business. Other investments are about diversification. For example, buying into Wildside in Italy was about getting into high-end drama in Italy. Our acquisition of a majority stake in the production company Abot Hameiri in Israel was about getting into Israel in a meaningful way. All the investments are about complementing our portfolio.

WS: What are your priorities for the U.S. market? You do a good deal of business in the U.S.
FROT-COUTAZ: It’s always been a big market for us because our shows are always bigger there than anywhere else. American Gods is going to be a very important one for us. It’s a very ambitious show. We’ve been working on that for the last three or four years, and now it’s finally launching. On the unscripted side, we still have America’s Got Talent, which is doing really well. We had a very successful game-show block on ABC that launched last summer, with Match Game hosted by Alec Baldwin, Celebrity Family Feud with Steve Harvey and To Tell the Truth with Anthony Anderson. That’s been very strong for us. We also have Original Productions, which produces [shows like Deadliest Catch and Storage Wars] for U.S. cable networks, and 495 Productions [producer of Blue Collar Millionaires and Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party], so we have a very diversified business in the U.S. It’s probably one of our most diversified, ranging from docusoaps for cable to big scripted series like American Gods.

WS: What is giving game shows such longevity? How is FremantleMedia refreshing the game-show genre for younger audiences?
FROT-COUTAZ: The business is cyclical. A few years ago nobody would have bought a game show. Now there are more on the air, and some seem to be working again, so it moves in cycles. But if you have a big game-show format, they will be popular for a few years, and then they will go away for a few years, and then they’ll come back. That’s where owning a library of classic games and formats is very valuable because you know that over a long period of time you’ll go through these cycles, but they are evergreen. The other thing I’ll say about game shows is that they are not all going to work. The ones that are resonating at the moment are the comedic ones. Family Feud is comedic, obviously Match Game is comedic, and so is To Tell the Truth. Instead of thinking of them as game shows, I see them as shows that are vehicles for comedic performers. That’s a better way of characterizing these formats.

WS: FremantleMedia formed a partnership with CCTV Creation and co-developed the Dutch format The Eureka Moment, which aired on CCTV-1. What other opportunities is the Chinese market offering, either in production partnerships or distribution?
FROT-COUTAZ: China is not an easy market. We have a very good team in China, and they are doing a very good job, but at this point we cannot produce in China. It’s a very different model, so we have an enhanced format-licensing model because you can’t produce as a foreign entity and the restrictions on foreign formats have only increased in recent years. This might change, but for a foreign company doing business in China, it’s a bit harder than it was four or five years ago. That’s not to say that we don’t have a good business there. Doing The Eureka Moment with CCTV on Sunday nights was fantastic. They’ve made a brilliant show on a very big scale, with great production values and created a big event.

WS: Are there some countries where you are looking to increase FremantleMedia’s presence?
FROT-COUTAZ: [Our footprint] is probably about right. There may be one or two markets that we have in our short- to mid-term horizon. With production, there is a fixed cost that you need to have for your infrastructure. So if the market is too small, it’s going to be very hard to have a profitable business, and you’re better off licensing either to broadcasters or local production companies. We have companies in 31 markets. I don’t see us going much beyond that, maybe one or two additional ones, but we’re close to capacity.

WS: What are the biggest opportunities and challenges you see in the next 12 to 24 months?
FROT-COUTAZ: I think it’s going to be more of the same. There is increasing competition for talent. Yes, there is more demand for content, but at the end of the day you need the talent, and there is a lot of pressure on talent. And figuring out the model for short-form programming is also a big challenge that everyone is wrestling with.