Factual Distribution Superpanel Opens TV Real Festival


The inaugural TV Real Festival kicked off today with a panel on factual distribution trends featuring BossaNova’s Paul Heaney, Off the Fence’s Bo Stehmeier, Albatross World Sales’ Anne Olzmann and ZDF Studios’ Nikolas Hülbusch.

In conversation with TV Real’s Kristin Brzoznowski, the panelists weighed in on the health of the factual distribution business and the trends shaping the sector. You can watch it here.

“There was a lot of doom and gloom last year,” said Heaney, founder and CEO of BossaNova, when asked how non-scripted is faring today. “I think we’ve now realized that this is the new world. This is what we have to work in, so we may as well make the best of it, otherwise our companies and everyone else will no longer exist. We now just have to jump in and make sure that we’re not taking too much risk. I do feel as though compared to scripted, it’s a much easier genre to reset because of the budgets.”

Hülbusch, Director Unscripted at ZDF Studios, concurred with Heaney’s assessment of the market. “The peaks and amplitudes in factual are much smaller in positive and negative ways than for scripted and other genres. We live in challenging times, but my feeling is still [that it is] a little bit less challenging for us than for our scripted colleagues.”

Olzmann, managing director of Albatross World Sales, noted, “I have seen a real peak since MIPTV. In the beginning of the year, it was still quite slow, and we were wondering how the year was going to go. It turned out to be a really good MIPTV for us. For the programs that are a quicker turnaround, it’s a bit easier than for the heavy, blue-chip wildlife films when it comes to commissions.”

Stehmeier, CEO of Off the Fence, referenced the post-Covid boom and noted, “I think we’re going through a price correction moment, where people realized we were paying too much for content. Factual is starting to see a renaissance because it’s a fast-moving genre. If you’re a streamer, you can hyper-localize and get emotional stories on the screen faster at a much more manageable price point. Factual distribution will be the centerpiece here.”

Stehmeier is of the perspective that the “power of the commissioner is gone. A lot of the purchasing decisions are made by CFOs. The trust in the editorial teams is gone. You see a lot of money now sitting with advertisers, brands, off-air funding. There’s private money coming back into the industry. The people who were in control of the editorial side of the IP have been silenced. They need to be re-empowered, and I think that’s where factual distribution comes back in as a service company because we will service them so that they feel more empowered to make purchasing decisions.”

Brzoznowski asked the panelists about the importance of having a significant library today. Stehmeier noted that “having a solid library is the means of keeping a finger on the pulse with the client because you constantly have something relevant. As you’re there, you’re also able to start positioning advanced acquisitions, presales, co-productions. You can only really be in service to your client if your existing catalog is solid.”

On the flip side, having a library of too much content “can slow you down,” Heaney observed. “I’ve tried the big, solid catalog route in a previous company. It didn’t go terribly well, not necessarily the fault of myself. We have to build—through commissioning, acquisitions or co-productions—a slate. I hate the word ‘catalog,’ but I use it all the time anyway by mistake. You have to acquire content the way the buyers are buying, which is not building up as fast in terms of hours. Distributors, like it or not, we’re front and center. We do have our fingers on the pulse. If we don’t, we don’t deserve to be in business.”

Stehmeier added, “If you’re a specialist factual company, having a catalog is really relevant. If you’re more lifestyle, factual-entertainment, it can, as Paul said, be quite heavy because if it doesn’t shift, it really rips a hole into your P&L. Having a good solid catalog [is helpful with] AVOD and FAST. The greenest new shoots on prebuys and co-pros are coming out of AVOD and FAST. We wouldn’t be able to get to those co-pros and prebuys if we didn’t have a solid back catalog.”

At ZDF Studios, the library consists of a wealth of titles with a long shelf life, Hülbusch explained. “We acquire at a constant rate. Even if the market is a bit challenging, we know that wildlife and history programs, which we co-produce, commission and acquire, will still be attractive in a year or two when the market might be in a better position again.”

The session then explored the impact that AVOD and FAST have had on the factual distribution sector. “In the last three years, AVOD was 5 percent of our annual turnover and it’s gone up to 35 percent,” Stehmeier said. “It’s becoming a real revenue driver. It’s a bit like what we used to do when we windowed between pay and free-to-air. Carving out FAST rights is becoming much more of a thing. We’ve got a lot of hopes for that part of the market.”

It’s a similar story for ZDF Studios, Hülbusch said. “The revenues are developing exponentially.”

Building franchises has been key for Heaney since he launched BossaNova. “Ongoing series are the ones that you would hope the AVOD and the FAST channels want. FAST is more single-IP driven these days. I’m taking gambles on franchises that I’m starting and hoping that I can get beyond three series. Once you get 30, 40, 50 episodes of something, we can think, this is going to start throwing off income eventually. We’re sort of polarized at the moment with content. It is franchises on one side and it’s noisy, one- to four-parters on the other, in whatever genre you want. With FAST, it might be getting a bit easier with some bigger networks. They appreciate now that this is the new world and they’re going to have to give us some flexibility. Often, the linear channels aren’t offering as much or they’re offering the same, and if costs have risen, it’s less money, effectively. Therefore, they are becoming a little bit easier to work with in terms of the FAST and AVOD rights, especially FAST rights.”

Albatross has not put itself in the business of building FAST channels, Olzmann said, but has been licensing to AVOD and FAST operators. “It’s lucrative to find a balance of the missing license fees from the broadcasters.”

At Off the Fence, “within the AVOD and the FAST business, we will always still be the service entity,” Stehmeier said. “We are not interested in building our own channels. We will always be the distributor. We work with the best of the best in the market who own the channels.”

The panelists then weighed in on how distributors are securing access to content. Early access is paramount.

“You have to think of the earliest stage you can possibly get involved in and then go a little bit earlier than that,” Heaney quipped. “That’s been happening for quite some time. Producers’ livelihoods are at stake. You have to listen to what the buyers tell you. That’s gold for the producers. Sometimes they develop in a vacuum. And it’s not always their fault. Our job is to help the ones that we think can deliver on brief, on budget, on schedule.”

“We still have all kinds of business models,” Hülbusch added. “There are still some programs where we can afford to come on board at quite a late stage. But there is a rising number of programs which, without our input, simply would not have come about.”

Off the Fence is also boarding projects early, and is seeing new opportunities for re-versioning older content. “There is a lot of amazing content out there that just didn’t get seen,” Stehmeier said. “With a bit of a polish and sometimes an editorial shift, we can make it more mainstream. So, it’s not just [about coming on board] early, especially when you’re looking at feeding your FAST and AVOD business. There is still a lot of very valuable content out there that’s not being looked at.”

Stehmeier then discussed the role that distributors are playing in structuring the financing behind shows. “Ultimately, the people who are underwriting the journey are either a distributor themselves or a fund or somebody else, and they need the skill set of a distributor in the middle to calculate the ROI and the time and how this money is going to work and who’s going to cash flow it. The distributors are actually becoming the financiers of many of these shows.”

“I couldn’t have gotten BossaNova off the ground without Night Train Media’s support,” Heaney noted. “They brought in a fund. Ten years ago, getting content, [you] didn’t need to use as much risk in terms of investment. Probably 10 or 15 percent of the content that you want out there to sell may not need a deficit; ten years ago, it would have been the opposite.”

ZDF Studios does engage in deficit financing on certain productions “at a reasonable level,” Hülbusch said. “Sometimes we come on board as a development partner and then go to the market together with the producer and look for international partners. That’s very time-consuming, and you need a lot of capacity to do that. Therefore, this still is and probably will stay the exception. We can afford to do this maybe once or twice a year.”

The panel wrapped with a conversation on funding sources. ZDF Studios is still largely using the traditional rubric, consisting of a commissioner’s fee, the producers’ own investment, a distribution advance and public funding.

Heaney added: “My first question is, What’s the budget? And then you almost have to work backward and see where you’re going to get to. It’s always that jigsaw puzzle. Is there a commissioner involved? What do our sales projections look like? Is there an advance we can stick in? The Development Days we do basically fast-track that.”

“It’s also a question of who your audience is,” Olzmann added. “A lot of producers want to be on public channels. They need the big audience. That’s restricting a bit for alternative financing.”

Stehmeier sees a wealth of potential in the world of alternative funding sources, “but that comes more from our production side. There’s a lot of need for audiovisual storytelling. It could be from brands, hotel chains, tourism boards. We, as a company, are attending almost as many TV festivals as we are attending non-TV festivals. So, from a production point of view, there is a lot of work out there. The distribution business then comes in and looks at the ROI. Within that conversation, we cancel out free-to-air sales because it’s too branded or it’s too alternative. But there is a lot more money out there than one thinks. And they all want to be on television. That’s why it’s so important to have your finger in the FAST business because if you do have access to a channel, even if it’s not your own but you’re the service entity of the channel, eventually you will be able to bring those opportunities back to the FAST ecosystem.”