Off the Fence Sets New Strategy as Market Evolves

Off the Fence’s Bo Stehmeier and Allison Bean discuss the company’s new strategic directives.

Bo Stehmeier returned to Off the Fence at the start of this year to become CEO of the respected factual outfit. In the six years since he was last at the company—an eight-year run that included him serving as managing director of distribution—the nonfiction business has been completely transformed, largely thanks to well-funded streamers. Stehmeier, who spent the last five years at Red Arrow Studios International, most recently as president, has spent his first six months at Off the Fence crafting a new strategy to best position the company in the landscape today—one being roiled by large-scale M&A, shifting consumption habits and an abundance of new business models.

“The macro system has changed massively,” Stehmeier said in a press briefing with reporters to outline the company’s new strategy. “It’s unprecedented times. As we navigate new waters, we have to prepare for something—and we don’t know what it looks like or what it will be like.”

Off the Fence has long been known for delivering high-end content—its own and third-party. Indeed, several of its current offerings have been selected as finalists at Jackson Wild, among them The Last Horns of Africa (Cross Border Productions/Banovich Studios), Mother of the Sea (WaterBear Network), The Witness is a Whale (Terra Mater) and Voices of Earth (Gariza Films). That focus on top-notch quality will remain, centered on three themes: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. “Yesterday focuses clearly on history, especially ancient history. Tomorrow is focusing on science. Today is about our relationship with the planet, with ourselves and the people around us. That translates into natural history, crime, travel, lifestyle and conservation.”

Structurally, meanwhile, the company is organizing itself around three business models: OTF Fast, OTF Originals and OTF Studios.

OTF Fast speaks to the company’s need to be “super agile” in the marketplace today. “There are two sides to this strategy,” Stehmeier said. “One is internal, which is we have to become more digital. Our business is driven more and more by data. People want to buy content, but they’re also very interested in the data attached to it. The second part is the new, exploding AVOD business and the FAST channels. The revenue-share models that are appearing are very difficult to administrate if you’re not agile and digital.”

OTF Originals, meanwhile, is positioned to feed what Stehmeier sees as booming demand for factual content from both OTT platforms—including      WaterBear Network, which was launched by Off the Fence’s founder, Ellen Windemuth—and linear channels alike. “We foresee a huge amount of production work available for European companies with the quotas coming in on the streamers. We’re investing heavily into development and hybridizing core genres like history and wildlife, for example, and giving these unique ideas to the streamers. Our OTF Originals strategy is focused on access, unique visual storytelling and hybrids.”

OTF Studios was created in response to “the blurring of production and distribution” in the market, as what were once traditional sales houses step up their efforts in “co-financing, presales and investing into IP, talent and access,” Stehmeier said. “In the last 15 years, I’ve noticed that the way people buy or commission content has changed radically. Some want a commission; at the same time, they want a co-pro for the shoulder peak, and they’ll also buy some shows for a catch-up service. Trading holistically as a studio is becoming more important.”

Those three segments of the business operating in tandem, combined with “having the IP and the broadcast community at our heart, is going to give us the secret sauce to sail into the future,” Stehmeier said.

Investing in people has also been a critical element of Stehmeier’s strategy, with recent personnel moves including the appointment of Allison Bean, who has been leading Off the Fence’s production arm, as chief content officer. “As the industry is evolving so fast in distribution and production, it became very clear that we needed an overarching editorial hand to help guide the company into the future,” Stehmeier explained. “As part of the future of Off the Fence, we’re going to build out the senior team that Allison and I will guide. The more people you have on the team, the more diverse views you have on structuring the business. In these new waters we’re navigating, the new idea can come from anywhere. For a company of our size, it’s really important that we have industrial reach into the world. We have a lot of business models, and that senior team we’re building to pull it together is so important. I’m a big believer that there is a certain size before the company loses touch with content. Content is an emotional space. The minute it becomes units, the overall quality drops. A big part of Allison’s role is guiding the senior team with me and making sure that we don’t turn into a units business and we remain editorially [driven].”

Bean added, “Off the Fence has always had a reputation for being quite single-minded in the content it wishes to create, rather than responding to more of a mass-market request. That’s turned out to be our strength. We want to do more of that. We’re lucky to be partnered with a big mother company who gives us 100 percent autonomy.”

Indeed, Off the Fence’s 2019 sale to ZDF Enterprises (ZDFE) was one of the many factors that brought Stehmeier back to the company. “They own us 100 percent but are very hands-off,” Stehmeier told TV Real. “What I enjoy about working for them is that they have a commercial angle, but also, they only buy companies that are 100 percent strategically aligned to the mothership. That doesn’t mean we have output deals or anything like that, but we have a very clear route into the channels for pitching and also acquiring from them.”

Since the change in ownership, “We noticed an increase in trust for more bulk deals,” Bean added. “There seems to be a network of broadcasters aligned with ZDFE that would like to have specialist factual content—to commission or buy—that isn’t from the BBC. There’s been an increased focus on us to provide that content since being purchased by ZDFE. We’ve suddenly been given quite a lot of weight behind us. We’re not independent anymore and therefore are less of a risk.”

Both Stehmeier and Bean spoke to the rising demand for factual amid the pandemic. “It seems that people find some peace and tranquility watching natural history,” Bean said. “It feels evergreen, and it can be globally shared and celebrated. The way the stories are told does evolve, but [the genre] doesn’t go out of fashion. When times are hard, there seems to be an increase in people wanting to watch natural history. We’ve noticed a significant increase in demand. We have to evolve to stay ahead of that. We made an active choice to be selective with the programs we make in order to solidify our brand.”

Asked by TV Real about how Off the Fence is devising its development slate to meet this surging demand, Bean noted, “We have different members of the development team to service different broadcasters. We try to avoid too much overlap. Higher-end premium documentaries like My Octopus Teacher [which won an Oscar this year] sit in natural-history development. Debbie [Hinnigan] leads natural history—she’s focused on exploring a range of programming. Different members of the development team have very specific focuses. Leila [Monks] was brought in to look for new opportunities [as head of commissioning]. Interestingly, those new opportunities seem to be more within our own company than out of it. That’s because of the streamer market and us being able to turn things over quite quickly and having the content. We also have a lot of historical relationships with the broadcasters. Those are very carefully looked after and curated. It’s not a development slate that looks like blood spatter; it’s quite tidy. And it is a range.”

Stehmeier also responded to a question from TV Real about the state of the traditional distribution model for factual, where an outfit like Off the Fence would pick up completed series and specials from third-party producers and proceed to sell them worldwide. “The old days of meeting a Canadian producer with hundreds of hours of completed shows in the catalog are gone,” Stehmeier said. “You have to get in very early, or you find producers in less mature markets who need a bit of warehousing. You have a great idea, you’ve shot a lot of it, we bring you into the Off the Fence family through OTF Studios and then help you build a business around it. You need to be an octopus—you need to have your arms in many different businesses. That’s why the senior team is so important.”