Top TV Execs Tackle New Distribution Landscape in Rome

Christopher Vourlias

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ROME – In an increasingly complex TV market, with a host of new big-ticket streaming services preparing to enter an already crowded arena, both buyers and sellers are rethinking some of the fundamentals of the TV business as they grapple with the best way to reach global audiences.

A host of top producers, network executives, and international distributors gathered during the MIA market this week to discuss their strategies for creating and packaging fresh content for the global market. Moderated by Skybound Galactic CEO Rick Jacobs, the panel included Mike Wald, EVP of television distribution and content strategy at Sony Pictures Television; Sean Furst, co-president of TV and film at Skybound Entertainment; Andrea Scrosati, group COO of Fremantle; Nina Lederman, EVP of global scripted development and programming at Sony Pictures Television; Nancy Cotton, EVP and head of scripted programming at EPIX; and Ted Miller, a partner at CAA.

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The discussion was dominated by the impending launch of a raft of deep-pocketed streaming services, including Disney Plus, Apple TV+, and NBCUniversal’s Peacock, which will soon join a content arms race powered in recent years by Netflix and Amazon.

Though the announcement of each new programming slate or development deal might make it seem as if the streaming giants are cornering the market on A-list talent and premium content, Miller suggested the industry as a whole has hardly scratched the surface of its growth potential.

“We’re obviously seeing a realignment of the business with the global streamers…but they’re not covering the entire world of content,” he said. “In many territories, the global streamers have opened up the doors for new content, and for producers and others to create content in those territories.”

Wald agreed. “There’s no question that it’s changed over the years. Of course there’s much more being produced for the global platforms,” he said. “But the reality now is that…there’s still a lot of content out there that doesn’t fall in that bucket. Practically speaking, there’s still a lot to distribute.”

There are also different ways to do it. “You have more splicing of windows and stacking of rights. A lot of the platforms that are launching are more flexible with how they share those windows,” Wald continued. Selling to streamers, he said, represents a big part of Sony’s business. “It’s not necessarily the case that it’s all or nothing. I think there’s a place for both.”

A wealth of buyers doesn’t simply mean more opportunities for distributors. “If you have the luxury of being able to work with great talent and great creators, this world now gives you the opportunity to bring in front of them a portfolio of options,” said Scrosati. “And you have to be agnostic about them. There’s not one that is bad or good. There’s one that is bad or good for that project.”

“There’s actually an opportunity for a creator to have a choice of every buyer, and really determine who is the best buyer brand-wise,” said Lederman. “Who is the best buyer in the way they see the rollout of that show? And that gives them incredible freedom, rather than working for a platform which, of course, has upside, but the downside is that if the platform doesn’t love that idea, they can’t make it.”

Creators might have more platforms than ever before to distribute their content, but with increasingly fierce competition to discover the next “Succession” or “Fleabag” or “Game of Thrones,” they face an uphill battle to stand out from the crowd. “The bar is high,” said Lederman. “If you can have a successful book, a podcast, an article, any kind of IP that’s behind it, it’s almost in a way de-risking the idea.”

“Creators are always on the hunt for original ideas,” said Furst. “When you have IP that’s already been somehow planted in the market, and has an awareness and developed a little bit of a following, that tends to bode well for us when we try to connect with creators that are looking for something that might have already a path being paved.”

Having struck gold with “The Walking Dead,” which began as a comic book series, Skybound is trying to develop more IPs across a range of comics, novels, video games and merchandise, “so that when we go to distribution partners, and when we go to platforms, there is maybe a heightened receptivity to that project,” said Furst.

“The bar is higher now. We have to be better. We have to be better at developing,” said Lederman. “We have to be better at thinking through, what is the story we’re telling? How long is it good for? Is it a limited series? Does it have legs to continue? That’s where it falls back on us to support the creatives and make sure that what they’re doing, and before they take it out to the market, it’s undeniable.”

With the impending rollout of a dizzying range of new streaming services, the calculus of buying and selling content is about to undergo another radical shift. In that environment, said Scrosati, producers and distributors have to be sensitive to the needs of each new platform.

“It’s really important that you think what that buyer needs, and what that channel or service is catering to,” he said. “When you are in the creative phase, even if there are 12 buyers, probably each of those 12 needs something different.”

“I think everyone is going to look at what platform—what over-the-top, what streaming platform, what subscriber platform—is right for them,” said Lederman. “And the truth is, all of these places want to have someone’s favorite show.”

A similar process will be playing out in the minds of consumers, for whom the growing array of subscription options is becoming a pricey proposition. “I think it’s very confusing. There’s not going to be one size fits all, but as a consumer, what does it mean for us?” said Cotton. “How do you find the content that you want to watch, and are you going to be frustrated that there’s going to be too many people that you have to pay along the way?”

However much uncertainty clouds the weeks and months ahead, the fact remains that creators, producers, distributors and the various platforms vying for our eyeballs will be exploring the new landscape together.

“We have the same existential crisis that they have anyway. They’re hoping to find a buyer, we’re hoping that the shows that we’re putting out find subscribers,” said Cotton. “One way or another, all we can do is control content that we really believe in.”

She continued: “No matter what has happened over the decades that we’ve all been in this business, people need content. As long as we all stay committed to that, that’s one constant no matter what the distribution vicissitudes are going to be.”

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