Real Deal: Factual series and one-off documentaries are in demand across broadcast networks and digital platforms in Europe

These days, it seems reality is just as intriguing as fiction—if not more so. TV viewers the world over, Europe included, are eager to devour factual programming, whether it covers true crime, medical scares with a shocking or mysterious twist, history, nature and wildlife or the increasingly not-so-tame real-life events currently unfolding before us.

“Across all of Europe, people still have an appetite for history,” says Melanie Torres, GRB Entertainment’s director of international sales, who adds that “current events and hot topics also do well.” She points to GRB’s MIPTV launch of Beyond Boundaries: The Harvey Weinstein Scandal.

Similarly, TCB Media Rights’ Holly Cowdery, sales manager for Germany, CEEMEA and Benelux, reports that history is a big seller and titles about World War II, in particular, are “consistently asked for and sell very well.” She notes that for female-skewing channels, lifestyle content such as The Cruise is in demand, with reality shows like Bondi Rescue and Border Patrol also notching up sales in CEE.

Richard Tulk-Hart, A+E Networks’ managing director of international content distribution and co-productions, agrees that “in Eastern Europe, in relation to HISTORY content, core history has been most appealing, including [programs about] World War II and evergreen one-offs. In the rest of CEE, we find less demand for real history programming than in Western Europe, though there seems to be a growing trend for crime.”

“Across Eastern and Western Europe, there is still a very big appetite for factual crime content,” says GRB’s Torres. “Crime is the gift that keeps on giving for us. Wicked Attraction is a long-running series of ours that a lot of buyers keep on renewing and picking up in different territories as well.”

CRIME PAYS
For Rive Gauche Television, crime series with proven track records such as Homicide Hunter, Ice Cold Killers, Evil Twins and Sins & Secrets do very well across the region. Crime stories attached to medical mysteries also have a home on TV screens in Europe, says Marine Ksadzhikyan, the company’s senior VP of distribution and development. “We introduced Something’s Killing Me recently into the CEE market and the reception was outstanding.” The series looks at life-and-death medical mysteries with a potential criminal twist.

Similarly, medical shock docs generate sales in Europe, with Untold Stories of the ER leading the way in that space for GRB Entertainment. Relationship-focused programs are also popular, according to Torres, though she has found less demand for those types of shows in Western European territories.

“In Poland, our transactional content is still hugely popular, even after multiple runs,” says A+E Networks’ Tulk-Hart. Some of the top-performing titles that fall under this umbrella are Pawn Stars, Storage Wars and American Pickers. He has found plenty of demand for factual programming in the region “as DTTs try and test content to refine and build their channel’s personality.” Intervention, Live PD: Police Patrol and Born This Way are among the titles that have piqued buyers’ interest.

For Terra Mater Factual Studios, Sabine Holzer, the company’s head of specialist factual, says documentary films that take viewers to exotic or rarely seen locations, including Wonders of Africa, Tasmania: Weird and Wonderful, Wild Canada and Wild Sri Lanka, are among the best-selling programs. “These films often tell a story of certain inhabitants, which means there is a concrete storyline embedded in stunning pictures of landscapes and never-before-seen behavior,” she explains.

Rive Gauche’s Ksadzhikyan is noticing that “a lot more factual programming is starting to play around with different styles of storytelling. For example, one of our newest titles, Homicide’s Elite, is a factual crime series that boasts such a high level of production value that it looks more like a scripted procedural. This type of out-of-the-box, fresh storytelling is what seems to be in demand within the region.”

Well-known or qualified presenters can also add to the appeal of these programs. Holzer notes that this is true for Terra Mater’s Wild Weather with Richard Hammond. The show sees the titular host, of Top Gear and The Grand Tour fame, explain various elements of the weather, from how wind starts to the key role temperature plays in making the weather itself.

Yet, Holzer cautions, “The interest in presenter-led programs also varies from territory to territory. There seems not to be that one particular presenter who works equally well across all territories. Even natural-history legend Sir David Attenborough, who is embraced by British, Scandinavian and Australian audiences, might not be of additional value in other countries, where channels simply prefer non-hosted versions.”

LESS IS MORE
“Sometimes, a presenter does us more of a disfavor than a favor,” GRB’s Torres concurs. She notes that buyers often prefer programming without a presenter because these titles tend to have a “longer shelf life, and someone who might be very famous in one part of the world might not even be well-known in the region at all.”

When a personality has worldwide resonance, though, having a presenter can work well, as is the case with GRB’s Man at Arms: Art of War. “Danny Trejo is so well-known globally that having him as the host of Man at Arms has worked in our favor,” Torres explains.

Since a presenter can either help or hinder sales, some of GRB’s shows have two versions: one with a host and one without, making it simpler for buyers to choose the edition that best suits their needs. This is true for the factual crime series On the Case, with some seasons available without the host, U.S. journalist Paula Zahn.

Having a variety of options available to buyers across CEE and Western Europe is key for distributors, even as it seems television tastes across the region are becoming more similar than different. Indeed, A+E Networks’ Tulk-Hart believes “Western European broadcasters historically have taken more risk on programming, but even that is evolving in Eastern Europe.”

Moreover, the ability to tailor content to viewers’ preferences and make shows feel more local is invaluable.

“Local content is always key,” says Tulk-Hart. “Our content is usually used on secondary channels and as library. [Buyers] prefer to select content that they know has performed in the region. There is certainly a desire to localize factual shows as formats and we are constantly looking for ways to service this.”

Often, buyers have an eye out for format rights, as it can be cheaper to localize a show. GRB’s Torres has noticed this trend, particularly in Eastern Europe. She explains that buyers will sometimes test out a series by taking the finished tape and subsequently acquiring format rights only after the title has proven popular in the region.

HUNGRY FOR MORE
And when distributors are serving up factual fare in this part of the world, Poland comes to the table with a voracious appetite. “I think there were only a handful of shows from the 40-plus series that we launched at MIPCOM that didn’t find a home there,” says TCB’s Cowdery.

Other countries hungry for this type of content include the U.K., Germany, Sweden, France and Spain, according to GRB’s Torres. “I would even throw Italy in there. A lot of our pan-[regional] buyers have feeds into all of these countries, and that is where we get the bulk of our European business,” she says.

“Poland is in some ways our biggest buyer for CEE,” echoes A+E Networks’ Tulk-Hart. “The market is incredibly competitive. Securing business with almost all channels in the territory signifies the strong appetite and presence of our factual content. The launch of DTTs a couple of years ago injected another wave of competition in a bid to secure a wide range of factual that they could play with.

“In the rest of [the region], we do a lot with Viasat and MTG in Russia and CEE; they tend to buy content we have not aired on our own channels,” he adds. “Hungary is on the increase with nearly double the revenues since last year.” Tulk-Hart says that Croatia continues to be a big buyer of factual as well, while Terra Mater’s Holzer notes that the Baltics also take their share.

And it’s not only linear clients that are looking for factual fare these days. “A whole new world of opportunity exists with SVOD, as now we find factual shows living next to all other genres,” says TCB’s Cowdery.

Since most SVOD channels still acquire factual rights on a non-exclusive basis, Terra Mater’s Holzer agrees that these platforms open up more possibilities across Europe. “There are single-territory deals as well as multi-territory deals,” she says. “Linear rights and digital rights can still be exploited in parallel, without cannibalizing each other, and there are also opportunities regarding 4K on digital/OTT and SVOD platforms. Especially in Russia and Poland, we see an increasing demand.”

“The opportunities are massive simply because there’s some niche content that has an audience, but the audience sometimes isn’t able to see this content if it’s not bought by a linear broadcaster,” says GRB’s Torres. That’s where OTTs come in: they can offer a solution and be a suitable home for content with a very specific target audience.

Ksadzhikyan of Rive Gauche finds that “Eastern Europe has had a difficult time embracing the OTT world, but there are more opportunities now than there were a year ago, and these opportunities will continue to grow as more local OTT platforms emerge within the territory.”

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