TCB Media Rights CEO Paul Heaney tells TV Real about how the company has broadened its scope of activities to meet the new and ever-changing needs of the market.
As the factual-distribution business faces the same industry shifts that are taking place in other segments of the content landscape, rights holders are being forced to evolve. The journey of TCB Media Rights speaks to the broader trends in the market. The venture was established by Paul Heaney in 2012 and has steadily built up an extensive catalog across history, science, crime, travel, medical, nature and more, working with leading producers in the U.K. and North America. Heaney leads TCB as CEO within Kew Media Group, which acquired the company in 2017.
TV REAL: How are you working with producers, early in the process, to make sure you have a show that you can sell?
HEANEY: We just treat it as if we have a shopping list—without being too prescriptive. If you’re too prescriptive, you end up getting something that is made by numbers. We’ve got to allow the producers to have their natural creative bent. We try to work with producers who we know are well recognized and have integrity with the broadcasters and the SVOD platforms. We brief the hell out of the producers and bug the hell out of the broadcasters to make sure we’re getting a detailed brief. We’re very close to the channels. We’re always reiterating and rechecking and reaching a level of trust and trying to work with them as closely as we can to make sure that when we’re handing out a brief, it’s not too detailed and it’s going to work not just for one channel but for a few of them. In the fields of access ob-docs or engineering or transactional or true crime or science or renovation or food, whatever it is, we have to make sure we’re not randomly just throwing words around. We’re a bit more circumspect. We have an acquisition team and a commissioning team, so [our strategy is] well backed up. We have to make sure we’re not as random as we were in the very beginning. And we’re making sure that square pegs fit in square holes in terms of ideas.
At the same time, I love that you can have a cross-pollination of creativity. One of the shows we launched at MIPCOM was How Did They Build That?, an engineering series. We gave the brief to Curve Media. We’ve worked with them before. They’re highly thought of in the U.K. and around the world. They’ve got a lot of talent in fact-ent areas as well. The engineering genre is well served, but if we can bring in a talented indie who can deliver on time, who has tons of integrity, loads of creativity, and has a bit of cross-pollination of ideas from other genres, that surely can only be a good thing. It moves the genre on a bit.
TV REAL: Do you have a lot of first-look deals with producers, or do you tend to work more with creatives on a project-by-project basis?
HEANEY: It’s a bit of both. With official first-look deals, I’m generally less keen—we go into them with some trepidation because you can get a lot of antipathy. I’m not saying our relationships are like this, but historically if you go into one, the producer thinks, “I need to get a load of ideas going; otherwise, they won’t want to keep my first look going.” And a distributor thinks, “Come on producer, where are all those ideas we paid for?” It suddenly changes what was a level playing field into something different. It can actually spoil a relationship rather than make it successful.
TV REAL: It’s been seven years since you founded TCB Media Rights. What are you enjoying more today than you did then, and in what areas is the business more challenging?
HEANEY: It’s a more crowded market, no doubt. When we started, I thought, it’s an empty field, there are producers everywhere and there’s a story to tell. That felt exciting. And nothing beats the excitement of the very beginning. But you forget the fear and the terror. On one side, if I knew then what I know now, I’d enjoy it an awful lot more. Back then, I was just terrified. The enjoyment I get out of it now is I’m working with a fantastic team, the best I’ve ever worked with. I didn’t have that then. Now, the excitement and opportunity are shared across the team, and it’s all about them. In a way, that is more satisfying. And I can probably sleep a little bit sounder at night—a little bit. But the story hasn’t really changed. Before, we were a straightforward distributor with presales. Then straightforward distributor with presales and can act as an agent in terms of introductions and bringing in producers because we have good broadcaster connections. And then broadcasters want to speak to us because we gave good producer relationships. And then we started working with producers at an earlier stage to develop content. And you add on to that not just developing but actually commissioning it, sometimes from scratch with no broadcaster attached. What else could we do? We had no alternative. We had to go this way. Each year it’s gotten harder and harder to find third-party. It’s always easy to find content. It’s getting harder to find good content that will sell. I made the mistake many times of picking up content just because it was available.
Another difference between now and then is that platforms are polarized more in what they need. They want big and noisy and then want volume at a lower cost. The middle-ground area is getting harder and harder to fund. So we have to make sure we’re doing both premium and higher volume that has to look good on-screen even if it is low cost. Like Mysteries of the Abandoned, which is on Science [in the U.S.] That came through from a brief we gave to Like A Shot Entertainment, an indie we trusted who we knew could make it work. It will be at over 50 episodes next year and we only started a few years ago. It’s a complete phenomenon. It came out of working closely with an indie, finding an idea that we knew was going to work, giving it to them and working with them to develop it.
TV REAL: You always have so many new hours before the markets—how are you managing that volume?
HEANEY: Actually, this year we’re limiting it a little bit and doing justice to the shows we have rather than keep acquiring more and more. We have to do justice to the producers themselves. If we feel like we’re not going to be able to do justice to all those hours, then let’s not do it. We’re making sure we have enough ‘A-lister’ shows and those are the ones that will help sell the catalog. The market is dictating that as well. There are certain genres that are saturated. I think we learned that the hard way. Also, we have a lot of returners. Out of 40 titles we launched at MIPCOM, I’d say 15 are returning series. That’s good business for us. The engineering shows and Bondi Rescue and Border Patrol and Nightmare Tenants, Slum Landlords, that’s what broadcasters want. Volume works for them.
TV REAL: How has the emergence of SVOD changed your business?
HEANEY: It’s hurting the linear players in certain markets, so it is affecting us. What we’re finding now is our acquisition strategy is much broader. [We’ve moved into] theatrical docs and premium factual. Those 1×90-minute, 3×60-minute formats wouldn’t have been looked at a few years ago.
TV REAL: Are producers becoming savvier about the SVOD global licensing deals, which involve giving up a lot of back-end rights?
HEANEY: They are. But there’s still a lot of wide-eyed, kid-in-a-sweet-shop views from producers. Wow, could I get my show onto Netflix? And Netflix knows that too. Both sides are maturing. [The SVODs are saying,] We don’t really need all the rights. [Producers are saying,] We don’t want to give away all the rights. It comes down to savvy negotiation by the distributor, and how linear and nonlinear are working together. There are examples in the U.K. of a show starting on linear and a nonlinear picking it up afterward.
TV REAL: What factors do you weigh when exploring a global SVOD opportunity versus country-by-country sales?
HEANEY: We look at the exposure. Is this show going to get returned? There’s no point going for the big deal if a season two doesn’t happen. So that’s something we think about. Recently, we went for a slightly lower offer from a channel, knowing they’ll probably come in on season two. There’s no point going for flights of fancy. Are they going to nurture that show? That’s why we love channels like Science. Science is the ultimate nurturer. Even if they acquire it, they want to put their stamp on it. It is harder for the producer because they’ve got to jump through hoops editorially to make sure what they are delivering is right, but it’s the best way to almost guarantee you’re going to get a returning series.
TV REAL: What are the biggest trends you see impacting the factual business in the 12 to 18 months ahead?
HEANEY: We all have to move faster. There’s no room for anything that doesn’t move the dial or grab you editorially. It’s never easy. You have to work harder on the relationships. So super-serving is the word I always use about us. We have to super-serve those producer relationships and broadcast relationships; otherwise, we won’t get good content. We’ve spent money bringing in people who can make relationships work, whether it’s in sales, acquisitions or business affairs.