Off the Fence Explores New Partnerships, Digital Diversification

Stefanie Fischer, managing director of sales at Off the Fence, and Loren Syer-Willoughby, head of acquisitions, discuss programming trends and some of the new partnerships the company has been involved in.

The ZDF Enterprises- and Off the Fence-backed interactive VOD platform WaterBear Network is set to launch this fall. And this follows on another partnership that Off the Fence struck up recently, aligning with Insight TV to launch InWild, a new channel dedicated to nature and wildlife content. These are but two examples of how Off the Fence has been diversifying its business, taking a 360-degree approach in doing so and proving to be a valuable partner in the marketplace.

The overall impact from the coronavirus pandemic has been somewhat unpredictable for Off the Fence and the factual-programming industry at large, according to Stefanie Fischer, managing director of sales. “We remained extremely busy, and buyers were very open to having lots of conversations but were naturally cautious and a lot of deals were delayed as a result,” she says. “However, there were also quite a few nice surprises where new slots had opened up or programming was needed quickly due to productions being put on hold. We did find that factual productions that had some sort of certainty with regards to delivery and that could be turned around fast were very desirable, and we’ve managed to greenlight a number of co-productions because of this. Factual content as a whole has a slight edge in this respect over fictional dramas and features, as it can be more flexible and can adapt to change a lot faster.”

Programming with a feel-good quality has been most in demand, says Loren Syer-Willoughby, head of acquisitions. “There was a slight rise in COVID-19 content very early on, but now broadcasters need content that is more entertaining and lighter-hearted. In addition, especially during the lockdown, there was a bigger focus and need for family-friendly programming due to families being at home together. However, with many countries opening up again, content needs have also gone somewhat back to normal.”

True crime continues to be a hot commodity in the marketplace, and Off the Fence is offering two series that have just been released from their Netflix holdbacks: Murder Mountain and Who Killed Malcolm X?

“Crime isn’t just for the late-night audiences anymore; it’s really progressed into prime time and even daytime, [with] families sometimes sitting around and watching together,” says Fischer. “We therefore find that although cases need to be explosive and somewhat well-known, they also need to be very story-driven and more open for wider audiences at different times of the day. We’re also seeing crime emerging beyond just murder stories to fraud and other scandals such as Fyre Festival and Jeffrey Epstein.”

The company has been producing and distributing content for over 26 years, with a sizable catalog of around 60 percent third-party programs versus 40 percent in-house. “Digital is an area where Off the Fence has grown exponentially and beyond straight program sales,” Fischer explains. “The changing digital landscape allows us to be in the driving seat, shifting the focus from solely B2B to also look at B2C opportunities”—such as setting up its own channels on YouTube or monetizing titles through Amazon’s PVD.

Off the Fence teamed up with Insight TV to launch InWild, which will feature some 1,000 hours of natural-history and wildlife programming from across the globe. “We saw an opportunity with Insight early on, and as we have been working with them for a long time, a discussion about a channel was very natural; with our large offering of high-quality natural-history shows, it made sense,” Fischer says. “We’re starting with a few key territories that we hope will grow as the channel gets up and running.”

Off the Fence is also a partner in the interactive VOD platform WaterBear Network. Founded by Ellen Windemuth, Off the Fence founder and CEO, WaterBear will be launching in November 2020. “Off the Fence has been involved from the very beginning, helping it to grow in its early stages,” Syer-Willoughby says. “Audiences have so much more choice, so these platforms that can target a key area make it easier for audiences to access what they want all in one place. WaterBear has a clear call to action for those dedicated to the well-being of our planet and will naturally create another home for content.”

She adds that Off the Fence has positioned itself as a 360-degree company, having both production and distribution services. “This can be a real asset for international third-party producers who may need additional production help or general advice. For broadcasters, we can react quickly to their changing needs and be prepared to turn around shows in a timely, reliable manner.

“Having a large sales and distribution team alongside this means we can further add support, facilitating financing in the form of commissions or co-productions that we can offer for third-party productions as well as Off the Fence Productions.”

Co-productions are also possible, she adds. Off the Fence recently produced My Octopus Teacher, a Netflix original documentary. Off the Fence Productions has been busy with Discovery, having produced Sharks of Ghost Island for Shark Week. “We’re also working with a number of third-party producers on some very exciting co-productions, which we’ll be announcing soon,” Syer-Willoughby notes. “Off the Fence can offer clients a number of opportunities due to our varied range of abilities and services, which can be a real asset for those looking for sales, financing and production.”