Beyond the sheer glut of new content, about 500 scripted video programs and an estimated 750 unscripted series, is the overwhelming challenge of distribution. Evolving digital platforms and the tumultuous upheaval at conventional TV networks (especially the cable/satellite channels) are making this year’s upfronts and Digital Content NewFronts ad sales pitches especially hectic.
Traditional studios like Fox, Sony and WarnerMedia are finding new roles in creating content for online platforms especially as the corporate structures change after mergers that brought the old Time-Warner networks into the AT&T family and Fox into Disney. At the same time, native digital platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Facebook, Hulu and Vudu are expanding their original content inventories as viewers migrate from linear to on-demand preferences.
FX Networks Research shows about one-third of original series now debut on online platforms, slightly exceeding productions created for broadcast or basic cable TV channels. The percentage of original series made for pay cable (such as HBO, Showtime or Starz) has remained steady at about nine percent of total production for the past five years, according to FX.
Facebook Watch and a new “video incubator” called Facebook Match exemplify the online sector’s aggressive move into original programming. Facebook is funding new shows from about a dozen small publishers and networks. Under an innovative intellectual property arrangement, the producers will retain the rights to distribute the shows on other platforms after the Facebook license expires. Facebook is working with Condé Nast, Complex Networks and BuzzFeed to create original video programs for Facebook Watch. Facebook is hoping to spur viewer engagement on Facebook Groups and Watch Party.
An ambitious new player in the short-form creative game is Quibi, a mobile-first platform that plans to offer 100 original segments per week when it debuts in April 2020. Quibi is headed by Hollywood veteran (and former DreamWorks CEO) Jeffrey Katzenberg and former HP CEO Meg Whitman. They recently revealed that Quibi’s initial line-up will include a reality series from Jennifer Lopez’s production company and two short-form daily newscasts.
Tubi, an advertising-supported streaming venture, is taking another approach. It recently licensed 400 movies and TV episodes from NBCUniversal, including nostalgic favorites such as The Incredible Hulk, Battlestar Galactica and The Bionic Woman. Tubi, which characterizes itself as a “free Netflix alternative,” plans to spend more than $100 million to license content this year, according to Variety.
Netflix, which is both a producer and distributor of original content, is accelerating its role in the animation category. It has opened an in-house animation studio and plans to acquire other content via deals with three Japanese anime studios plus the estate of Roald Dahl. Netflix has also commissioned an original eight-episode anime series Gods & Heroes, based on Greek mythology.
Traditional studios and networks also are revamping their operations. Sony Pictures Television has a new production unit to produce low-cost series,using the formula of the indie film industry. The division plans to shoot in less expensive locations and produce multiple episodes simultaneously to cut costs further. Sony can also distribute the shows through its own global channels, such as AXN (in Europe Asia and Latin America) as well as license them to U.S. cable and streaming platforms.
Fox Searchlight, the specialty division of 21st Century Fox, launched its own TV unit last year, and WarnerMedia has a similar operation called Horizon Television that has produced scripted and reality shows such as Fuller House for Netflix.
This increasing competition is triggering intense efforts to attract audiences. HBO has a couple dozen projects underway, ranging from a Game of Thrones spinoff to a high-profile miniseries about Catherine the Great starring Helen Mirren, another indicator of the global search for quality programming.