TV4 Media’s Cathrine Wiernik Talks Programming Strategies

Cathrine Wiernik, the director of acquisitions, formats and development at TV4 Media for the Nordics and Baltics, talks to World Screen about programming strategies and needs, and the role of imported shows on TV4, TV4 Play and C More.

Wiernik oversees TV4, the leading commercial free-TV channel in Sweden, which caters to a broad 15-to-64 demographic, its sister AVOD digital service, TV4 Play, and the SVOD platform, C More. Sweden has handled the coronavirus pandemic differently from other countries, setting restrictions and guidelines, but no lockdowns, nor shutdown of TV production. While shooting has continued, although more slowly, on local shows, thereby not disrupting schedules, the cancellation of sports events and halt in production on international shows have left gaps in C More’s offerings.

WS: In the past year, what imported shows have performed particularly well?
WIERNIK: Acquired shows are not prime-time product on free-TV channels and haven’t been for a long time. They work in daytime. But for C More and TV4 Play, our AVOD platform, premium acquired series carry a very central role in our strategy. On C More, where acquisitions are very key, it features films and shows from the premium cable world, like any other SVOD service. We’re pan-Nordic and we have had, as of last year, a few stand-out acquisitions: The Capture, the BBC hit, did really well for us, as well as Younger, which is a half-hour dramedy. It did outstandingly well on C More, as well as on TV4 Play. An initiative that we launched in March, the success of which was also fueled by the fact that there was the coronavirus going around and more people were looking for shows to watch, is the hayu channel, as a branded section on C More. It features the Kardashians [and much more]. It offers significant volume, great brands, and we get a lot of binge-viewing from that. The hayu investment has paid off well. Then, on the Swedish local programming side, we’ve had amazing success with a new show called Bäckström. It’s a classic cop show, but with a slightly different tone than the classic Nordic noir, more family-friendly. We had fantastic success with the re-launch of Big Brother on C More, where we had the whole universe, the app, the 24/7 cameras and the director’s cut camera, and it surpassed expectations.

We’re building TV4 Play, our AVOD service, very much because it is the mirror of TV4. It’s our ad-supported business on the digital side. In a few years, TV4 has to migrate into TV4 Play, because [as linear viewing declines], we will need to move people into TV4 Play, which is the world of TV4. All the shows that do well in prime time on TV4 linear do well on our Play service. We have a huge focus on Play at the moment because we need to create a service with a rich, deep, broad spectrum of content that will not only reflect our prime-time schedule and provide a catch-up service but will also be a go-to destination where people want to hang out. When it comes to acquisitions, we historically didn’t make a lot of exclusive AVOD acquisitions because TV4 Play was mostly a catch-up service for our TV4 local productions. Now we realize we need to feed our AVOD platform, but it won’t be as premium or as high-end. It might be more mid-segment drama or daytime drama. Last summer, for example, we launched Series Sommar or Series Summer, where we offer a new series every week. It can be anything from a daytime BBC TV show to a second window of a premium show. It’s not as extensive and not as premium, but it’s still good and, accumulated as an event, does really well. We have Waco, for example, Blood and those types of shows.

WS: Do you ever premiere a show on one service and then move it onto another to get maximum exposure?
WIERNIK: Yes, definitely. We have Sweden’s biggest free-TV commercial channel, TV4, the AVOD platform, TV4 Play, and the SVOD service, C More. So we’ve had a holistic look at our commissioning for many years. Now we’re separating them a bit again because we need to build TV4 Play more exclusively. But still, we use all our windows to create leverage for the next window and maximum impact for each show. Not all of our shows are exposed everywhere. It’s a very case-by-case basis, depending on the investment and what type of show, when we launched it, and we experiment with publishing strategies. But we use cross-promotion, we leverage different windows, and we create a long tail. That’s the upside of being a media house with all these platforms and channels. And now, since the telco Telia bought us, on the C More side, we’ll hopefully have the scale to do even more. Telia has a carriage business, so they aggregate clients and platforms. It is an exciting merger.

WS: In the U.S. and most of Europe, productions have halted because of the coronavirus. The Hollywood studios didn’t have their usual stock of pilots to screen. In addition, sports events have been canceled. How are you filling the gaps for the programming that is not coming in?
WIERNIK: Well, there are two aspects to this. Given that we have not been on total lockdown, our local productions have slowly but surely moved forward. Production has not been unaffected, but not nearly as affected as the rest of the world. We’ve had to cancel some stuff that’s shot abroad. We’ve had to adjust things, corona-proof sets according to directives and regulations on how we produce: how many people on set, who eats where, when, etcetera. But we are allowed 50 people in a room. We are allowed to continue going to work, but with social distancing rules. Even though we have postponed, adjusted, revised and canceled, we’ve managed to continue production.

We don’t have huge gaps that we need to fill. What’s mostly affected is not our local commissions as much as the fact that sports are gone from C More, and a lot of the big international series and feature films are not coming in. So we’ve worked creatively on the local side, where we had to push something forward, maybe it airs this fall instead of this spring, and we’re shuffling things around. We’re also trying to stay sane when it comes to new investments because we’ve been so hard hit [by the decrease in] revenue from our ad business, like every commercial broadcaster in the world. We have all-time records in linear viewing and C More consumption, but we are not getting paid for it. So we can’t just go out and binge-shop to replace things. We need to think creatively and cost-effectively. We need to shuffle things around more than just finding things. And we have to live with the fact that 2020 might be a little less powerful as far as new titles and volumes of exclusive new shows coming out.

Hopefully, we are finding new ways to replace the delayed new international acquisitions by buying shows that are already boxed. For example, we acquired Schitt’s Creek from ITV Studios, a mega-success on Netflix in the U.K. and CBC in Canada was the original commissioner. It gives us a lot of volume, as a half-hour show, and we’re trying out for the first time, in a more serious way, the comedy format on C More.

Of course, the competition for that programming is more significant because everybody is experiencing the delays and consequences of the coronavirus and that’s tough. But we’re trying to finish deals quickly to fill at least some of the needs that have occurred. Rather than new premium series, we might fill in with other things. But a lot of shows are coming in. It’s about being agile and flexible and acting quickly on the shows that are available. The competition is bigger on those titles because people would have gone to L.A. and watched 60 pilots and would have picked and chosen from those. That’s not happening. Still, we’re managing. Again, everybody looks creatively at this. There are other things to buy, and we are lucky enough to have a lot of our local productions. For example, Beck is our biggest Swedish brand ever. It’s a mega-success for C More. We managed to box the new films and the set will come out this fall. We do manage to continue production. We had to cancel The Bachelor. We were going to roll out with 150 people in production in Greece; that’s not going to happen this year. We might take some of the shows from abroad and do local versions of them this fall instead. But we’re working. We’re keeping the factory going slowly but surely with everyone’s health prioritized.