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Small Screen Confab: Realscreen Draws Top TV and Cable Brass

By Lauren Cardillo

The most popular words spoken at the 12th annual Realscreen Summit in Washington, DC, last week were not "snowstorm," "The Cove," or even "the Oprah Winfrey Network." Instead, it was the previously untrendy term, "monetize," that attracted the most attention.

What does it mean? For the channels, it translates into making back your money on a show or series, and then making even more via other delivery platforms. In these tough economic times, it was a constant message at panel discussions, presentations and even cocktail parties.

Monetization wasn't the only hot thing at this year's event. The 2010 Summit hosted more delegates than ever--close to 1,300--the most speakers, participants from about 20 countries, plenty of pitch sessions and a primer on 3D production.

The participants on one of the opening panels of the conference, "Television 2012 Town Hall," mentioned money often, as they picked a dream schedule of which competitors' shows they would like to see on their primetime air. The panel was a glimpse into what the channels are looking for as the TV viewing audience increases. Great characters, simple concepts, unfiltered reality concepts and the ability to repeat the idea were all key.

Nancy Dubuc, History's president and general manager, put The Real World in one of her slots. She liked the fact that the series constantly reinvents itself, is a known entity and has spawned plenty of ancillary revenue.

Frances Berwick, Bravo's executive vice president and general manager, was a fan of Deadliest Catch; it has "a great name, great characters doing interesting things, and it isn't going to lose steam." The Biggest Loser earned her praise as well because it can have multiple seasons. "There is no end to obese people," she added. "Bravo is always looking for a franchise opportunity." Dubuc echoed Berwick: "We all want highly lucrative shows with topics that will not tire." A hit series such as The Biggest Loser also "can grow in many different revenue streams." 

Paul Telegdy, NBC's executive vice president of alternative programming, was a fan of Real Housewives of New Jersey. "It rises about the normal, and could easily work on network TV," he noted. "That's an example of launching a franchise and owning it," added MTV's president of programming, Tony DiSanto. Top Chef was a top draw for Debbie Adler Myers, general manager of Discovery Science. She liked that by merging two genres--competition and food--it became a hit.

"We want shows to be a 360-degree business," Myers explained. "We want to run a business behind a brand. Our creative challenge is to continue to push the envelope of storytelling in unique ways, but it is always about compelling, authentic characters. We will have more technology at our fingertips to use as storytellers, whether it's 3D [Discovery Communications is starting a 3D network], mass media devices or user-generated gear."

Most of the panel's lineups included both ends of the nonfiction spectrum--from hit series such as American Idol and Jersey Shore to award-winning specials like Planet Earth and 102 Minutes That Changed America. "It's a balancing act,"Dubuc pointed out. "We have to manage the channel's portfolio, so we're not going to do all the same shows."

Abbe Raven, president and CEO of AETN, added her thoughts to what is hot today in nonfiction in her keynote address. Sometimes taking risks is what television is all about, she said. A & E (one of 10 AETN brands) has been looking to attract younger viewers since it re-tooled itself in 2002. Dog The Bounty Hunter, Hoarders and Intervention all fit into the new brand. "When you want huge numbers, you have to embrace a wider audience," Raven maintained. "But we never look at a show as a pure business decision."

The biggest challenges in the future for AETN were several, according to Raven: "We need to continue to attract audiences to our brands, exploit every business opportunity and find the next great story." She emphasized that the main thing was "to be open, not just to the way we used to do business, but to the new opportunities."

One of those new opportunities on the nonfiction landscape is the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). Christina Norman, CEO of OWN, discussed the new venture, which will now launch in January 2011. "Our number one job is entertaining television," she said. "For OWN that means programming that reflects its viewers; we want people to see themselves on the air." The channel is looking for shows in three different areas: "Look Beyond Yourself"--letting people experience walking in someone else's shoes; "Dream It, Do It"--making someone's dreams come true; and "Take Charge of Your Life"--methods to transform your life.

The channel is also searching out documentaries for its DocuClub strand. How should the channel be pitched? Norman responded, "With heart and conviction." One thing OWN should not be, added Norman, is earnest. Instead, OWN is looking to empower, while also being provocative and edgy.

Another new delivery platform for filmmakers was explored through a panel called "New Screens for Non-Fiction." Here, reps from MTV, DCI, Endemol and Jumpwire Media looked at the new world where more and more people want their content via a non-TV format. But that doesn't just mean taking broadcast material and putting it on the Internet. Jumpwire's Gavin McGarry even suggested putting a trailer on YouTube to garner viewer interest for commissioning editors to see. Producers might even consider bypassing broadcast all together. David Gale of MTV used the network's digital work $5 Cover as an example of a multi-faceted project that couldn't have been done on TV. It's a mix of documentary and fiction segments and shows based on the real life of actual musicians in cities such as Memphis and Seattle. And, according to Gale, the more you can engage a sponsor from the beginning, the better.

Ben Silverman, former NBC Entertainment and Universal Studios co-chair, picked up on this financial theme, too. His speech, to a packed ballroom, pushed the audience to be not just storytellers (because content is king) but entrepreneurs who must seek more alternative financing as the funding pie gets smaller. Silverman hopes his new company, Electus, can be a new model for creating and funding content. "We need to ask ourselves, As a business in 2010, what can we do differently because of the economy and technology?" He believes producers need to move closer to the consumers, and closer to distribution. He also called for filmmakers to bring advertisers into the mix earlier in the production process. When questioned about the feasibility of getting a seat at the table with advertisers, Silverman responded, "I am the face of the future." 

Mark Finkelpearl of the Argentina-based Cuatro Cabezas liked Silverman's message of doing it yourself. Cuatro Cabezas, one of the big players globally in nonfiction, is now launching in the US. In addition to navigating the daunting financial times, the challenge, said Finkelpearl, is to ‘bring an idea to market that no one else has. It's got to be a great character, compelling story, and repeatable for a series."

Thom Beers of Original Productions, and the creator of Deadliest Catch, agrees: "We need to swing for the fences and try new genres." The current financial picture was a concern to Beers, too. Right now the channels are using the "current economic climate to take back some rights and decrease budgets," he said. And even he is not sure how to change that, but the dilemma was on the minds of a lot of filmmakers at the conference.

Public television was represented at Realscreen with many players, including Steven Schupak of Maryland Public Television, who moderated a panel called "Syndication in Public Media."  Reached by phone after the panel, he said, "Funding always seems to be our biggest challenge. Nonfiction is heading into numerous subcategories, and some of them are very exciting. In the documentary area, subject and storytelling remain paramount. But more than ever, production design and approach dramatically impact which channels carry the program, which partners participate in the production and ultimately determine what kind of audience the program will attract."

One of the players facing the future with a smiling face was the Realscreen conference itself.  With the summit pulling in close to 1,300 delegates, and the workshops having sold out, it had a great year. According to Realscreen Magazine Publisher Claire Macdonald, a passionate and committed advisory board helped get the word out. "We are marketing ourselves better," she adds, "and cutting through the rest of the conference clutter. We are focused on a niche market, so lots of people are very loyal to us." And she doesn't mind that some people never attend a single session. Rather, they use Realscreen as a film market. "We have gotten close to creating a balance between networking and learning," she notes.



Lauren Cardillo, an Emmy Award winning filmmaker, is currently developing two feature- length documentaries. And she enjoys sitting at the bar at Realscreen as much as attending the sessions.