MIPCOM: Drama Production Booming as Reality TV Looks for a Comeback

DESIGNATED SURVIVOR S01E03 Still - Publicity - H 2016
Sven Frenzel/ABC

DESIGNATED SURVIVOR S01E03 Still - Publicity - H 2016

Big-budget fiction series, like ABC's 'Designated Survivor' and HBO's 'The Young Pope,' will be in focus as the world's biggest TV market kicks off this week.

"Disruption" is one of those buzzwords that has infected the television industry. Digital technology, as everyone knows, is “disrupting” the TV business, as it did the print and music industries before it. The future belongs to the “disrupters”: Netflix, Amazon and their online-first ilk, who are destined to overthrow “legacy media” — or, as we used to call them, television channels — leaving the networks fighting over an ever-shrinking, ever-fragmenting audience.

The only problem — by pretty much most measures — is the networks, from the U.S. and around the world, are doing just fine. As the global television industry gathers this week for TV market MIPCOM, which runs Monday through Thursday in Cannes, old-school broadcasters will arrive as hungry for programming as they have ever been, and with fat acquisition budgets to match.

“I'm not entirely sure I'd call what is happening with Netflix and Amazon 'disruption,'” says Stuart Baxter, president of eOne Television International, a leading independent production and sales group. “You have a slew of new outlets, but what it's doing is growing the TV pie, it's feeding the growth for more shows. Because the networks are still growing, too.”

Instead of online platforms cannibalizing the audiences on traditional networks, Baxter points to the huge increase in production — more than 400 fiction TV series will be produced in the U.S. market this year alone — as evidence that increased demand is a rising tide for all boats.

Ahead of MIPCOM, eOne signed a global deal, outside of North America, with Netflix for Designated Survivor, a drama series starring Kiefer Sutherland as a low-level U.S. cabinet minister who suddenly becomes president of the U.S. following a terrorist attack. But the company also forged a number of big territory deals with traditional TV networks — including TF1 in France and Sky Living in the U.K. — for Conviction, a crime procedural starring Hayley Atwell.

“There's no doubt the free-TV world, the traditional networks worldwide, still have a bias towards procedurals, with the edgier serial fare being more popular on the pay-TV and online platforms,” says Baxter. “The international networks would like more of that high-end, talent-driven procedural product, and they aren't getting enough of it from the U.S. networks, which are moving towards more edgy fare with relatively few new procedurals.”

That gap in the market has been quickly filled by independent production companies on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to Conviction, which is produced by eOne's new subsidiary, the Mark Gordon Company, also on eOne's MIPCOM slate is Ransom, a crime procedural about a hostage negotiation team, which German network RTL, Canada's Corus and France's TF1 are financing in collaboration with CBS.

Amazon provided a different model, coming on board to greenlight a second season of critically acclaimed German series Deutschland 83, together with German anchor network RTL and an array of international broadcasters, including SundanceTV in the U.S. and Canal Plus in France. Amazon's Prime Service will premiere the series in Germany and Austria, with RTL taking the first-look option for free-TV rights afterwards.

If anything, the disruption on the international TV market is being seen in financing models. Co-productions, in which several broadcasters, or streaming platforms, team to co-finance a show, were once an oddity. Increasingly, they now are becoming the rule.

“It used to be you couldn't get the Americas to come to the table,” says Rola Bauer, managing director of Studiocanal TV and a pioneer of the co-financing model for TV drama. “Now people are open to it. The climate has changed so tremendously, because budgets are limited, because networks and platforms need original programming, they want to program originals 12 months a year, and budgets are limited.”

HBO's recent deal to team with Israeli production group Keshet for a new Israeli drama series from In Treatment creator Hagai Levi and Noah Stollman is an example of this. As is The Young Pope, a big-budget drama starring Jude Law and Diane Keaton, which HBO is bankrolling together with Canal Plus and Sky in the U.K. and which FremantleMedia is selling at MIPCOM. NBCUniversal International Television Productions has a deal in place with RTL and TF1 to produce U.S.-style procedural series financed out of Europe, with the first projects expected to be announced in the coming months.

Drama series are again expected to dominate the conversation, and the deals, at MIPCOM this year. But reality and nonfiction TV hasn't gone away, and there will be plenty of producers hustling down the Croisette trying to sell broadcasters on the next big show. Talpa, producers of The Voice, are pushing 5 Gold Rings, the first format they've developed together with ITV Studios since parent group ITV acquired Talpa last year in a deal valued at up to $1.17 billion. FremantleMedia, famous for American Idol and The X Factor, have Get The F*ck Out of My House, a Dutch format in which complete strangers are packed into an average-sized suburban family home and have to try and outlast the rest to win the jackpot. There will even be shiny-floor formats from the likes of China and India, which, following the pattern already established in Europe, are increasingly moving from buying U.S. shows to producing — and then exporting — their own.

“Licensing our formats can also be a bigger segment for us,” says Sunita Uchil, chief business officer, global syndication at India's Zee TV, which last year became the first Indian broadcaster to export a local reality show when it sold its popular Dance India Dance format to Thailand's JKN Global Media.

Legal issues, however, continue to hang over the reality TV business, where copyright disputes are worryingly common. One show that's drawn attention in this regard is Sing! China, an successful singing competition program from Star China, a group entangled in a legal battle with Talpa over alleged misuse of Talpa's The Voice format in China.

Copyright problems aside, as production costs for drama series continue to shoot up, low-cost reality shows could see a rebound. While reality kings like Fremantle are investing heavily in drama — see their upcoming fantasy epic American Gods — fiction-centric eOne is heading the other way.

“The TV industry has always been cyclical,” says Baxter, “and while I don't think we are in a [drama] bubble, other genres, including reality, will become popular again. We need to be in the non-scripted business in the factional, confident they will come back.”

Just don't expect it to happen at MIPCOM this year.