MIPDoc Opening Session Highlights Factual Shifts


Factual commissions have held up better than other genres, MIPDoc’s opening session revealed yesterday, but the segment is facing its own share of disruptive shifts, including the need to explore branded entertainment and other funding models and audiences’ desire for immersive experiences.

The opening session of the last MIPDoc in Cannes, State of the Unscripted Nation, featured the presentation of in-depth commissioning intel from Ampere Analysis, presented by principal analyst Fred Black, followed by a panel with Off the Fence’s Bo Stehmeier, NHK’s Shin Yasuda, Insight TV’s Michael O’Connor and The 339 Company’s J. Kevin Swain.

“We all saw significant growth [in commissions] in 2022 and 2021,” Black noted. “Then we had this really big drop-off in 2023. For unscripted genres, the picture is more positive. Entertainment, documentary and reality were among the genres that grew the most in 2022 and fell the least in 2023.”

The balance between scripted and unscripted has also shifted, Black noted. “Documentary commissions have outweighed scripted commissions in eight of the last nine quarters. Over this period, reality commissions have been roughly equal with scripted commissions. So while unscripted is in decline, it’s actually becoming more important for commissioners.”

Western Europe has fared better than North America and Asia in terms of the decline in factual commissions, Black continued, referencing the strength of the region’s pubcasters. “In Western Europe, the public broadcasters offer a level of stability to the documentary industry—50 percent of documentary commissions in Europe featured a public broadcaster. That figure is only 10 percent in North America. In AsiaPac, the decline has been driven by commercial free-to-air broadcasters, as well as challenges for some of the public broadcasters.”

Black devoted the rest of his presentation to commissioning data from Western Europe. Pubcasters in this part of the world have the most balanced non-scripted slates, he said. “While arts and culture dominates, we’ve also got significant segments of travel, historical, biography, nature, science and political documentaries. There’s lots of diversity and scope in the different documentaries being made.”

At commercial networks and platforms, meanwhile, “true-crime content is starting to dominate. It makes up a full quarter of commissions for the last two years for both pay TV and SVOD. For SVOD, 50 percent of the commissions were true crime or sports documentaries.”

Pubcasters are aware of streamers’ preference for true crime, Black continued. “The most notable thing changing at the public broadcasters is they are also moving in a true-crime direction. That’s seen them cut back slightly on some of the more traditional areas you’d expect them to focus on. That strategy shows us that the public broadcasters are having to react to their funding being cut or changed. As they start to need to find new areas of funding, they’re focusing on titles that they can see having success on streaming platforms in the future. That means they’re focusing particularly on true-crime content. The pattern is similar if we take our commercial channels. Combining both free-to-air and pay TV here, crime was already the dominant theme. It’s grown its share from 17 percent of the commissions to a full 20 percent in 2023. Again, this has come at the cost of some of the smaller segments in the pie.”

SVODs, meanwhile, have cut back on both factual commissions and acquisitions, Black continued. Discovery+, Netflix and Disney+ “all reduced the number of documentary hours they are acquiring. If we focus on discovery+ and Disney+, they are removing more hours of acquired documentaries than they are buying. Across Netflix, discovery+ and Paramount+, it’s really only true crime where the library is growing significantly. All of them added around 100 hours or more of documentary content last year. They are interested in buying true-crime documentaries, but they’re not too interested in very much else. This threatens the diversity and balance of linear players. If they are starting to focus just on getting a distribution deal on an SVOD service, they really are going to have to just make true-crime content.”

Black also highlighted trends in reality, a genre that pubcasters are increasing their commitment to. The key development here, Black said, “is a focus on older content over new ideas. The major commissioners for reality content are focusing on renewing already established content, even if it’s only middlingly successful, and turning their backs on new ideas. This is a risk-averse strategy that makes sense if you’re trying to consolidate your audience, but it risks stagnation in the long term. If we can’t make space in our schedules for new ideas and innovation, then eventually the slate becomes old, the audience gets fatigued, and people start switching off.”

Wrapping up his presentation, Black noted, “The TV industry today finds itself in a bit of a pickle. Old revenue drivers aren’t growing like they used to, while some of the new revenue drivers that we were banking on taking over haven’t quite reached the heights that we were hoping for. Unscripted content, to begin with, was a beneficiary of this. It offered a low-cost way to make original content. However, it is starting to see the declines that we’ve seen in scripted content. Overall, we ought to be fairly happy with where we are. We’re definitely doing better than most. However, there are some commercial issues going into the next couple of years, and some of the reactions to that risk losing the creativity that made our marketplace so strong in the first place.”

The session continued with a panel conversation, moderated by The Bridge’s Amanda Groom, with Stehmeier, CEO of Off the Fence; Yasuda, senior producer at NHK; Swain, producer and director at The 339 Company; and O’Connor, VP of production and content at Insight TV.

“It’s obviously tough,” O’Connor said of current market conditions. “These things are cyclical. We’re definitely in the midst of winter right now. And we have been for a while. I do think we’re through the worst part of winter. It’s going to have to bounce back in some way.”

Yasuda noted: “As a public broadcaster, we share the same challenges that are being faced by other public service media around the world against the backdrop of the rise of social media, global streaming platforms, diversification and fragmentation of people’s interests and desires. But I think those challenges are pushing us to be more innovative in the way we connect with our audience. Factual is at the core of our values, so we’re doing all sorts of exploration in that area. We have always been very vigorous in developing new technologies and trying out innovative ways of using visual media. Building on the success of our 4K and 8K documentaries, we’ve been developing, in partnership with our French production company Gedeon Programmes, VR content and immersive experience entertainment for our audience. This is a way for us to find new ways to connect with new audiences, particularly the younger audience. And it’s so important for us as a public media to make sure that we’re not just on broadcast or the internet, but also have physical connections with our audience.”

Stehmeier added: “We used to, as producers and distributors, feed a very regulated and rhythmic business run by half hours and full hours—and the funding models attached to it, and, of course, all the service businesses. If we drill everything back down to the basics of good storytelling and then push out again, why does the story have to be in a half hour or a full hour? Why did it have to be on TV? Why don’t we start off on TikTok and jump into TV and jump to music and have it have a theatrical approach? Public broadcasters still have money, but they also need to extend their reach. And there are also budget cuts. So I see public broadcasters still coming in as like seed investors, putting in 40 to 50 percent of the money. But then they will also ask the producer, how do we reach our audiences [in other ways]? As they are shifting to on-demand platforms, we will see a shift in [durations]. And as production companies and service companies, we need to relook at our budgeting. Why does it have to cost $350,000 if most of the eyeballs are shifting to YouTube? Why can’t we produce stuff for $20,000? So, the cost around content and the shape of our content is up for grabs. And I think that’s where we need to be more collaborative and restructure the business and the different price points.”

O’Connor also stressed the importance of new approaches to collaboration. “Because of the instability of the business, we’re on a little bit more of a level playing field between the buyers and the sellers. Network buyers and commissioners are much more accessible now. Conversations are much more open and collaborative. And, there’s much more of a conversation, going back to what Bo was saying, of how can we figure this out together. What can we do together? Obviously, the price points need to be discussed. That last 5 to 10 percent of a budget is always the most difficult to find. And let’s talk about that collaboratively and try to find those solutions together.”

Stehmeier also addressed the advertising piece, noting that marketers are not discussed enough at content summits. “If you are Patagonia or American Express and everything that’s been commissioned is crime, that’s not going to work for them, is it? Many brands have pressures to be within storytelling and narrative, and they have a lot of money. But the advertising spaces available out there don’t suit them anymore. We co-own Waterbear Network, which is an AVOD platform mostly focusing on short-form, and I see many more of these blue-chip clients coming and commissioning short-form. There are brands, tourism boards and tax incentives that sit very close to, for example, natural history. Expecting the budgets to come from broadcasters is short-sighted these days.”

Yasuda also discussed the importance of collaboration to NHK. “We’re always looking for new partners to do co-productions with. International co-production is so important for us to diversify our content and provide different perspectives for the Japanese audience.”

The session wrapped with the panelists discussing what they’re looking forward to this year. O’Connor referenced a potential rebound in ad revenues amid global elections, the Summer Olympics and the UEFA EURO tournament. He’s also looking forward to commissioners being more flexible in their approaches. “We need to be a little bit less precious about what piece of the pie we’re getting as far as the windowing. Do we really need that premiere window? What rights do we need?”

For Stehmeier, diversity in storytelling remains a key priority. “At Off the Fence, one of our core values is biodiversity. Within biodiversity is diversity in itself. We just partnered up with the Paralympics. A lot of brands want to attach themselves to that space. There is money out there, and there are a lot of brands that want to fund content that they can’t see on the classic broadcasting ecosystems. Philanthropic impact is a space that is yet to be unlocked.”