David Way, president of Great Pacific Media, talks to TV Real about the opportunities he sees on the horizon in the factual programming landscape.
Thunderbird Entertainment’s Great Pacific Media (GPM) has partnered with some of the biggest names in the factual business, from Discovery and HISTORY to Blue Ant Media and HGTV. Notable productions include the long-running Highway Thru Hell and its spin-offs Heavy Rescue 401 and Mud MountainHaulers.
TV REAL: How is GPM positioned in the global factual landscape?
WAY: We’re driven to create original, authentic programming that entertains and expands our world. We’re one of the busiest factual production companies in North America, having created 12 new factual series over the past six years, including five series that were commissioned during the pandemic.
We have a diverse team of storytellers, with backgrounds ranging from documentary to journalism and science, and we love to partner with organizations and individuals to celebrate true stories that make the world a better place. In the last five years, we’ve prioritized training and opportunities for Indigenous and other underrepresented filmmakers, including supporting the launch of the Indigenous-led production company Wapanatahk Media.
TV REAL: What gains have you seen in the factual industry over the last year?
WAY: The pandemic made audiences hungry for fact-based content, and without having live events to attend, many have turned to factual series for their entertainment fixes. For example, the long-running popularity of home design and renovation shows increased over the last year. This is partly due to the absence of holiday travel, as shows like these can offer a form of escape when you have to shelter in place and, of course, the increased interest in improving our own spaces during lockdowns.
From a production company point of view, factual series have a lot of advantages when working around a pandemic. While safety protocols and culture have always been a priority in the unscripted series we make, we pivoted to more local production and smaller-footprint crews, which lend themselves well to factual productions. I also believe recent social movements have contributed to the demand for factual content. People want to see current and real events depicted on their screens, and factual series fill this demand.
TV REAL: How did GPM face the pandemic and keep productions moving forward?
WAY: Before the pandemic was officially declared, we transitioned 90 percent of our staff to remote work as a preemptive measure to ensure the safety of our community and personnel. We also quickly implemented Covid-19 protocols above and beyond public health guidelines, including on-staff epidemiologists and antigen testing, to go with our already stringent safety protocols. With three returning series and five new ones in production during the pandemic, GPM reported no direct Covid cases, and each series was delivered on time and on budget.
TV REAL: How are digital platforms reshaping the factual landscape?
WAY: On the one hand, this provides more flexibility. There are more platforms reaching audiences that want great stories. Also, casting uses a more Zoom-based approach. Storytelling is less inhibited now by the traditional TV structure and having to plan around commercial breaks. As content producers, we have much more freedom to adjust the length to tell the story the best way. On the other hand, the increase in IP ownership by digital platforms increases the competitive challenges.
TV REAL: What are some of the latest productions from GPM?
WAY: Our breakout hit series Highway Thru Hell is entering its tenth season, with its two spin-off series—Heavy Rescue 401 and Mud Mountain Haulers—also receiving multi-season orders. I’m really excited about Deadman’s Curse, Gut Job and Styled, three of our new series that feature diverse talent both in front of and behind the camera. We are also in partnership on Wapanatahk Media’s first series, Dr. Savannah: Wild Rose Vet, which is slated for a 2022 premiere.
TV REAL: As you look at the year ahead, what are the greatest opportunities for producers of factual content?
WAY: There is a growing, younger audience finding factual programming through various streaming platforms and loving what they find. YouTube and social media have changed everything, as algorithms and AI continue to accelerate the pace of discovery. Streamers have broken down the walls of genres and opened up formats. Fresh approaches to storytelling and diverse creativity onscreen and behind the cameras are tremendously positive trends.
After more than a year of isolation, the silver lining is that the industry has undergone a tremendous creative surge, where content producers can be catalysts for positive change through the extraordinary stories they tell about our changing world. There’s much more work to do, of course, but more and more, diverse storytelling allows us to better understand the world through many different perspectives.