MIPTV: The Week in Factual

The factual world is dealing with the same challenges everyone else is confronting, but the sector is in a better state than most. That was the overarching theme to emerge from the last ever MIPTV; and that MIPDoc, long a staple on the annual events calendar for factual distributors, will most certainly be missed (even though RX France has said that it is looking to create space for the non-scripted business at the inaugural MIP London next year).

The segment is indeed facing its own share of disruptive shifts, as MIPDoc’s opening session on Saturday, April 6, revealed, including the need to explore branded entertainment and other funding models and audiences’ desire for immersive experiences. The panel, State of the Unscripted Nation, featured the presentation of in-depth commissioning intel from Ampere Analysis, presented by principal analyst Fred Black. “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 to 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.”

At commercial networks and platforms in Western Europe, “true-crime content is starting to dominate,” Black said. “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. 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.”

The factual distribution business itself is undergoing significant changes, Bo Stehmeier, CEO of Off the Fence, said in the panel discussion that followed Black’s presentation. “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 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 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.”

The good news is there is still a significant appetite from consumers for premium storytelling. We heard that from acclaimed filmmaker Dawn Porter, the founder of Trilogy Films, as she shared her creative processes in a MIPDoc keynote before discussing the challenges and opportunities in the market with Anna Carugati, World Screen’s editor-at-large. “We’re all quite aware of the difficulties of commissioning and the challenges in our market, but I do want to stress that there is still quite a good path for quality filmmaking,” Porter noted. “The films that we make and the products that we produce are really popular. There’s a reason why nonfiction is resonating with audiences. Our films do a longer look, a deeper dive. They’re creative, interesting and innovative. I’m also finding that commissioners are giving us a little bit more development money in order to bring these stories to life.”

Our editor-at-large also moderated the panel with Universal Television Alternative Studio’s Toby Gorman, BBC Studios Natural History Unit’s Mike Gunton and series editor Holly Spearing taking MIPTV delegates behind the scenes of the big-budget event series The Americas. The ten-part blue-chip production, narrated by Tom Hanks with a score from Oscar winner Hans Zimmer, is set to air on NBC in prime time in 2025. “There was so much risk, we wanted so many firsts, we knew it would take so much time,” Gorman said. “This is, as far as I understand, the most expensive unscripted project in NBCUniversal’s history. It’s a big swing for us. We’re confident it’s been worth it.”

Blue-chip wildlife continues to resonate with audiences, as does premium history, with MIPTV seeing All3Media International announce a deal with PBS for Lion Television’s upcoming series Pompeii: The New Dig, while Germany’s Beetz Brothers Film Production and South Africa’s Storyscope partnered to co-produce Free at Last, a three-part docuseries covering the history of apartheid. In more recent history, meanwhile, LOOKSfilm’s The Last Days of Kabul—Life and Death of a Republic was named as the winner of this year’s MIPDoc Pitch. Biographies, too, remain a sought-after category, with MIPTV playing host to news of a new doc on Greta Garbo from Embankment Films, set for broadcast on Sky Arts, and The King of All Cons, from Dash Pictures, Matthew Lorenzo Productions and Sky, about fraudster Russell King.

Catch up on these stories at more on TVReal.com.