In today’s digitally fragmented market, broadcasters like nothing better than high-profile programming based on the anniversary of a famous historical event to cut through the content overload and win big audiences. This year the science docs business has a golden opportunity with a mega-anniversary to celebrate—man’s landing on the moon in the summer of 1969. The attention-grabbing anniversary has generated some outsized documentary projects.
One of Smithsonian Channel’s biggest productions this year is Apollo’s Moon Shot, a six-part series drawing on the unique strength of the company’s affiliation with the National Air and Space Museum, the world’s largest and most popular space museum. “It’s the repository of NASA artifacts,” says David Royle, chief programming officer and executive VP at Smithsonian Networks. “That helps us both in telling the story by using the archives and by enabling us to bring the viewers closer than ever to the story. With 3D scanning, we can explore objects in fantastic detail—for example, Neil Armstrong’s space suit or the lunar module. You can get right inside the module. Did you know there’s graffiti on the wall that the astronauts wrote? We can show that kind of detail.”
At PBS, the moon mission anniversary has delivered a big sales push. “Science has always been a very popular genre for us,” says Tom Koch, the VP of PBS International, which distributes the long-running science series NOVA. “The anniversary of the lunar landing has generated huge interest in Chasing the Moon and Apollo’s Daring Mission.”
High-profile anniversaries like the moon landing are competitive. “Anniversaries are tricky,” says Céline Payot Lehmann, the head of international distribution at ARTE Distribution. “Broadcasters want the doc on the subject. There are lots on the market and they want the best one—and they need it on time.”
The competition of moon-sized anniversaries is not for everyone. “In 2019 we didn’t focus on the moon,” says Patrick Hörl, the founder and managing director of Autentic. “Because big players like PBS and BBC are doing moon shows, we’re going for another 1969 anniversary with a six-part series on Woodstock, with a psychedelic bus.”
Hörl continues, “There are only so many events in a year. I think television series are actually more in-demand than the big anniversary-based ones. They have a greater impact on the perception of a channel than event programs. The fact is that an event program requires a lot of marketing even to get any recognition. With a series, you can build awareness over time.”
“The thing about anniversaries is that they create an atmosphere and a momentum,” counters Smithsonian’s Royle. “The press and the media talk about the anniversary and people start to focus on it. Suddenly it’s the subject people want to talk about and they become interested in the subject. They get excited and want to learn more.”
In addition to Apollo’s Moon Shot, Smithsonian has other NASA-related docs, including America’s Secret Space Heroes, about the scientists inside the space program.
PBS has found that the interest in the big anniversary has extended to other space-related programs, such as Rise of the Rockets, exploring the promising new renaissance of space travel.
Terra Mater Factual Studios is catching the momentum around the anniversary with its The Moon: Our Gateway to the Universe. Parent company Red Bull Media House, meanwhile, has its eyes on actually going to the moon. Last year at MIPTV, a partnership was announced with private space company PTScientists in its project to land the first private spacecraft on the moon. Red Bull will develop, produce and license the Mission to the Moon project’s live broadcasts, behind-the-scenes footage, feature documentaries and additional content.
Event-oriented shows aren’t always about anniversaries. For Albatross World Sales, the strongest science sellers have been The Equalizer and its sequel Champions vs. Legends. The Equalizer enjoyed the high-profile boost of the Summer Olympics and performed well at the time of the event as a one-off special. Anne Olzmann, the managing director of Albatross World Sales, observes that one-offs in general work slightly better for free-TV and public broadcasters with a very broad audience, while longer-running factual-entertainment series are more at home on pay-TV or niche-oriented outlets.
Albatross is bringing Naked Mole-Rat: Nature’s Weirdest Superhero, the winner of the NHK Science Award at Wildscreen Festival, to MIPDoc and MIPTV this spring. The one-off is produced by Taglicht Media for ZDF, ARTE, Smithsonian Channel and National Geographic.
In the competitive science-docs space, having exclusive access to things that have never been seen before is also a significant advantage. ARTE is offering up Sapiens: The New Beginning, about the discovery of fossil remains in Morocco. The finds suggest that our species is older than previously thought and originated not in East Africa but in North Africa. ARTE has done over 15 presales.
“It’s a real scientific scoop,” Payot Lehmann says. “This sort of discovery will change schoolbooks. Scoop documentaries are good for presales when you are in development or production. But they can have a limited shelf life because they might be overtaken by new scoops. Science moves fast.”
And scoops aren’t always exclusives, and they may even contest other discoveries. Albatross World Sales, for example, is looking for presales on Europe: The New Cradle of Humankind?, a one-off about the latest developments in our understanding of human evolution in Europe, challenging the general belief that Africa is the cradle of humankind.
Albatross has sold the visionary series Islands of the Future worldwide, leading to two sequels, Water Is Our Future and Paradise Preserved, which will be launched at MIPDoc and MIPTV.
“Revelatory science continues to perform,” says PBS’s Koch. New archaeological evidence takes center stage in Decoding the Great Pyramid, which sheds light on the stunning engineering of the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Such big docs have become showcases for innovation and high-end production. “Technology is enabling us to show things that couldn’t be seen before,” says Smithsonian’s Royle. “It’s not just the way we tell the story that’s evolving or the better formats like 4K; it has made the science so much better. With DNA interpretations, we can show new theories in detail.”
Royle adds, “Technology has made viewers more demanding. It’s almost an arms race. The audience wants more and more. The old days of showing diagrams are gone. You have to use high-end computer graphics and drones.”
ARTE’s Payot Lehmann agrees. “There’s a race to be impressive.” As an example, she references 700 Sharks, which featured scientists diving at night in Polynesia to study sharks. Production took two years and used the latest technology, including bullet-time cameras that allow the action to be stopped and looked at from different angles, like the effects used in The Matrix.
Tech innovations, however, don’t come cheap.
“Science is expensive,” observes Autentic’s Hörl, “for two main reasons. One, it requires research. That is costly. Second, visualization is a challenge. Often the solution is animation. And animation is very expensive because the viewers are demanding. They want animation up to the standard of feature films, and well they should.”
Autentic co-produced Out of the Cradle, a show about early humans, with NHK. The production broke ground by bringing in a new kind of animation partner, gaming company Square Enix, the creator of the Final Fantasy franchise.
“The level of detailing in gaming is breathtaking,” Hörl says. “We’re finding a new business model, putting together a broadcaster and a gaming company in production. The animation looks real.”
Sabine Holzer, the head of specialist factual at Terra Mater Factual Studios, agrees that “animation is hugely important. Doing great animation is part of the game. Yes, the cost is high if you do it right, but either you do it right or leave it. I’m not a fan of cheap animation.”
Given the costs involved in high-end science docs, international co-productions are common in the genre. They have been fundamental for the Smithsonian Channel, which worked with ITV on The Day We Walked on the Moon and with Talesmith and Zee Entertainment Enterprises on Life of Earth: From Space. Smithsonian is partnering with PBS to produce When Whales Walked: A Deep Time Journey, which will feature 3D animation.
Producing in 4K Ultra HD has become the norm for many companies, even though the actual 4K market is still small.
“Ultra HD content is already a basic requirement in the field of blue-chip documentaries from first shot to master,” says Armin Luttenberger, the head of international content sales at ORF-Enterprise. “For visually attractive content it means a significant increase in image quality in all stages of production.”
Smithsonian started making all of its originals in 4K a few years ago. “It’s not just that it looks great,” Royle says. “It allows you to show things in detail.”
Albatross’s Olzmann agrees that demand for 4K content is becoming essential for programs with strong visuals.
“We concluded several deals for the 4K version of The Borderless Sky, which would not have happened if it were an HD program,” she says. “Astro photographers armed with high-tech cameras gathering spectacular images of phenomena in the night skies—that makes for the very strong visual experience that needs to be in 4K.”
Koch says that 4K is becoming increasingly important in science documentaries for PBS International. “Some key clients look to take advantage of it as the USP in their programming lineup. For a number of our platform partners, 4K is the way they can distinguish top science programming in an otherwise crowded content landscape.”
For distributors, 4K has an added benefit. “4K is really important for shelf life,” says Autentic’s Hörl. “Science shows can last for five or six years. 4K gives you added security.”
At Terra Mater, 4K is seen as a must for just that reason. “We have to do everything in 4K,” Holzer says. “It’s the way to make sure our programs have shelf life.”
Another element that adds value to a science doc is having a credible, compelling presenter. “A good charismatic science presenter can make all the difference, as in the case of Bill Nye Saves the World on Netflix,” says Royle. “Science is complicated and requires explanation, but you don’t want the viewers to feel they’re being given a lesson, they want to feel smart and learn about the world they live in.”
“Having a famous English-speaking presenter can add a lot of value,” agrees Payot Lehmann. But ARTE tends to go without presenters, offering an English version and a clean international version. “Many of our buyers subtitle,” she adds. “They can’t afford to do a voice-over.”
Terra Mater partnered with the BBC, among other partners, on David Attenborough’s Light on Earth. It also made Richard Hammond’s Miracles of Nature and Wild Weather with Richard Hammond. For the international market, Terra Mater offered versions without the presenter.
“In trying to appeal to a global audience, we find buyers often seek out presenter-free science, but a good, authentic presenter can bring valuable knowledge, and audiences, to a program,” says PBS’s Koch. “In NOVA Wonders, a series where researchers are tackling some of the biggest questions about life and the cosmos, there is a knowledgeable, diverse set of presenters who successfully guide the programs and interpret the science for a wide audience.”
So what’s the next big frontier in science docs? VR, potentially, assuming it doesn’t suffer the same fate that befell 3D. There’s general agreement that, like that other much-hyped technical innovation, VR has not taken off as fast as some people expected. But location VR is showing its potential in science, according to Smithsonian’s Royle. “You can put the viewers inside a location, like a museum. They can disappear into a different world. The Science Museum in London is doing successful things, and of course, we had David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef Dive.”
ARTE has about 20 VR productions. These are short-form products of 2 to 10 minutes each. “It’s a completely different market from television,” Payot Lehmann says. “It’s not the same buyers, not the same people. We’re mainly talking about museums or aquariums. There’s no business model yet. The price on these things is low, $1,000 or $2,000.”
Luttenberger of ORF-Enterprise notes, “VR content as an add-on to linear perception can offer immersive experiences, but there are still questions about storytelling and the availability of suitable devices in the consumer’s living rooms.”
Koch is more optimistic than some others on the progress of VR. “It’s the exciting next step in science programming, promising to engage audiences on a truly unique, proactive level,” he says. “We have participated in a couple of VR projects that helped us navigate the challenge of bringing content alive in a meaningful way. As with any format of delivery, it always comes back to the simple premise—do you have a good story to tell?”
Whatever the format, the key, says Smithsonian’s Royle, is to be both educational and entertaining. “We have the resources of the Smithsonian and the museum is definitely involved. All our programs are sent to the museum experts and if there’s something not quite right, they send it back for us to fix.
“The world we live is so full of fake news and bad information,” he says. “It’s important to be able to give the public programs to believe in. But we also work very hard at being entertaining. We want people to watch and enjoy our programs and say to themselves, that was really a fun hour and I learned something.”
Pictured: Autentic’s Out of the Cradle.