Top Factual Buyers Talk Trends, Wish Lists at MIPDoc


National Geographic’s Christian Drobnyk, CuriosityStream’s Steve Burns and France Télévisions’ Thierry Mino shared their acquisition and co-production strategies at MIPDoc in a session moderated by Anna Carugati before each receiving a World Screen Factual Trendsetter Award.

The session, View from the Top: What Do Buyers & Commissioners Want, saw each of the three World Screen Factual Trendsetter Award winners offering up insights into how they are catering to their diverse audiences in a competitive and fragmented marketplace.

Drobnyk is executive VP of programming strategy and acquisitions at National Geographic Channels globally, with a large focus on the U.S. services. These include the flagship National Geographic Channel and Nat Geo WILD. “It’s my responsibility to make sure that our service reflects our brand and that we perform around the world,” he said.

Mino is the deputy head of documentaries, international co-productions and acquisitions at France Télévisions. He has a team of 12 programmers responsible for prebuys and acquisitions on one side and co-productions on the other. The team acquires about 500 titles a year for France 5 and another 100 for other services within the group. The team also prebuys or co-produces 50 programs a year.

Burns serves as chief programming officer at the SVOD platform CuriosityStream, which focuses on science, history, technology, wildlife and cultural programming. The service is available in 196 countries around the world. Now in its third year, the platform has amassed about 1,800 titles. “Each year we do 120 hours of acquisitions, presales, co-pros and commissions,” he said.

Carugati, group editorial director of World Screen, asked Drobnyk about what he looks for to complement Nat Geo’s high-profile originals like One Strange Rock and Genius. That event-focused strategy was implemented about 18 months ago, Drobnyk said, so the channel would “reflect what people expected from the brand. We have a lot of big, tentpole, scripted and unscripted events. From a co-production and acquisition perspective, we have supporting content,” which fills out the schedule and helps the grid be “more symbiotic with these big events.” Recent acquisitions include NBC’s Running Wild with Bear Grylls and movies based on true stories. “This is about the quality of the acquisitions equaling what we’re doing on the commissioning side, but also about expanding the reach of our network to bring more people in.”

Acquisitions and co-pros are also happening in Nat Geo’s “core genres,” Drobnyk said.

When asked about France 5’s position as a public broadcaster, Mino said the service can bring a different angle to subjects as compared with a commercial network.

CuriosityStream’s subscriber base is 34 percent millennial, Burns noted, “which is pretty remarkable. And 40 percent of the people that come to us are cord-nevers or cord-cutters. These are people that TV can’t reach. We’re proud about that.” The platform caters to people who are “craving science and history. We hope as we grow we’ll be able to improve upon the people coming to us for cultural programming as well.”

Carugati then asked the panelists about their wish lists. Drobnyk referenced science, history, exploration, adventure, travel and natural history. Nat Geo WILD has “built a microcosm of what we call animal caregivers,” with series like The Incredible Dr. Pol, about a vet clinic. “The other place we’re looking is more host-driven series that can take us into some of these areas. One of the challenges we all have on the documentary and nonfiction side is, how do we take this genre to a new generation of viewers? CuriosityStream is all about reaching those viewers where they are today. Creatively we need to find ways to do that. The Story of God with Morgan Freeman is one example. CNN’s Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown is another. This is a way of creatively taking people into these genres, and I’m hoping to bring more faces to our air to do that.”

Mino has two sets of wish lists at France TV. He’s looking for titles that will fill a Tuesday evening prime-time slot in the areas of science, space, ancient civilizations and archeology. These will usually be one-off, 90-minute programs, either French productions or international co-pros or acquisitions. He’s also buying for daytime, notably programs on discovery, wildlife and ethnology.

According to Burns, CuriosityStream is “always looking for a new production technique that allows people to revisit those topics [of science, engineering, wildlife, etc.]. It’s that substance matched with an entertaining storytelling style that we’re always looking for.”

Carugati asked the panelists if, as the number of outlets proliferates, there is enough content on the market to fill their needs.

“Yes, there is,” Mino said, “and if there isn’t we can work together—we work with Steve and with Nat Geo.”

Drobnyk agreed, adding, “there was a period when there was a big creative crisis in nonfiction television and reality TV took us there. More recently, there’s been a variety of super high-quality content. Our focus is to serve up the best possible series and content in each of these categories and to tell stories in new ways. That’s not necessarily falling off the trees.”

Burns noted that as the networks moved more to reality TV, “the people who normally came to Discovery and National Geographic for science and history could no longer find it. So we’re getting a lot of those people to come to us. And in terms of volume, we’re always hoping that the producers we meet at events like this will have new ideas, and they always do. I don’t think there will ever be a shortage of these inspiring, high-quality, entertaining factual programs.”

The conversation then moved on to the split between acquisitions, co-pros and originals. At CuriosityStream, it’s 85 percent acquired and 15 percent originals, encompassing co-pros, presales and in-house productions. “It’s about 95 percent U.S. premieres,” said Burns. “I’m really proud that so much of it is new for people who aren’t able to find that kind of factual programming on television anymore.”

Nat Geo used to do more co-pros, Drobnyk said. One recent one, Lost Treasures of the Maya Snake Kings, began as a presale and evolved into a co-production “as we learned more about the project and more about the National Geographic explorers involved. Where we can have editorial contribution on something that appears to be perfect for our channel, we’d love that. A presale is really about competition. Do we have to come early and not wait to pick it up as an acquisition because someone else is going to swoop in and buy it?”

Picking up on that theme, Burns noted, “Often we go in on a presale to give the producer a chance to get [the project] started. Many times they’re waiting to pull together budgets from around the world. While they’re waiting to hear they can at least get the key scout or the first shoots underway. It’s not so much about having editorial input exclusively on these programs; it’s more about knowing which producers can do it creatively.”

Mino would like to be doing more co-pros and prebuys but is constrained by budgets. Sometimes a presale can become a co-pro if France 5 determines it wants more editorial input on a project so that it fits its editorial needs.

All panelists said that a mix of specials and series is key. “A successful ongoing returnable series is like the holy grail,” Drobnyk noted. “When you’re ad-supported like we are [and] you go into a season two, three, four, it becomes low-hanging fruit for the sales group. We’re also looking at building out a National Geographic Presents Sunday night when week in, week out, viewers know to show up to get some kind of interesting special. That’s an important piece of our acquisitions strategy.”

France 5 prefers one-offs for its Tuesday prime-time doc slot. For daytime, series are important. Mino also mentioned the role of collections, including one from Windfall Films that featured multiple episodes that could air as stand-alone specials.

The session wrapped with a conversation on the major challenges in the nonfiction space today.

“Steve Burns’ service is getting people to cut cable,” Drobnyk quipped, noting the emergence of digital platforms as a competitor to linear TV channels. “And making content relevant to a new generation of viewers. That’s the key. We look at our content from a multiplatform perspective. We have a relationship with Hulu. We have an incredible app. We program our content with those platforms in mind.”

Burns views the level of competition as a “challenge, not a problem.” A complication, he said, is rights issues. “We have to geoblock here and there around the world.”

Carugati was then joined on stage by Laurine Garaude, Reed MIDEM’s director of television, to present each panelist with a World Screen Factual Trendsetter Award, recognizing their contributions to the global television industry.