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Viewpoint, Gary Lico: Guess what? Everyone was right

Gary_LicoSorry for the old school rant here, but everything industry pundits said would happen a couple dozen years ago has happened. All those pesky rules that curtailed media cross-ownership, studio ownership, channel ownership and just plain global domination have gone away.

These were big issues as recently as the 1980s; the theory was that if media companies got too big it could stifle other voices and inhibit the public’s right to multiple voices, because the public, after all, “owned” the air that the broadcast waves passed through. You could only own so many channels, couldn’t own a newspaper in the same city… stuff like that. Well, the air just isn’t what it used to be: hard-wired cable, satellites and broadband are all confusing what it means to be a broadcaster.

Third-party rights, if available at all, are becoming expensive and difficult to recoup when the programme has already aired in multiple territories.

But the big, well, they got bigger – REAL bigger. Full disclosure: I sell to many of these nets all over the globe. They are not just good customers, many there are good friends. That doesn’t make the job any easier if you’re on the outside looking in.

The toughest part, and I know this from the too recent experience of closing down a company somewhat related to the issue, is that their growth model includes owning the content outright and having the global network footprint to use it. Third-party rights, if available at all, are becoming expensive and difficult to recoup when the programme has already aired in multiple territories.

Dial in the M&A of formerly-indie producers such as All3Media, and local channel groups like SBS getting bought by Discovery and the sizes are more formidable than ever.

Business Insider reported in 2012 that NBCUniversal (then GE), News Corp (now 21st Century Fox), Disney, Viacom, Time Warner and CBS pretty much “control 90% of American media”. Globally, there are more: A+E, Discovery, Scripps, Sony and Bertlesmann come to mind. Then, the more production-oriented business: Endemol, FremantleMedia… you get the idea. It ain’t going backwards.

I’ve worked for big companies (Sony), I ran a mid-sized one (the late, great CableReady) and now am the proprietor of a one-man band, for now, LilOlMe.TV. I’d like to think I have the vantage point of being a beneficiary of the consolidation and to an extent one caught in the complexities of it all. Please note: the word “victim” was purposely not used.

Much like the issue of income inequality and the squeeze on the middle class in America and elsewhere, the content business is becoming one of big and small, the haves and the wannabes.

Here is my theory: much like the issue of income inequality and the squeeze on the middle class in America and elsewhere, the content (fka television) business is becoming one of big and small, the haves and the wannabes. Mid-sizers are forced to sell so as to have more working capital, leverage and product, or risk being crunched. A few former small to midsize operations, like Tinopolis and Leftfield, have their own designs on growth.

January’s RealScreen Summit was filled with this kind of talk, powered by the ever-present forces of greed and fear. But there was good news: the same biggies that make us sweat are also reaching out to independent producers to be the first stop for new ideas. A+E, in particular, has had contests and workshops for development assistance and encouragement.

At the same event, though, A+E’s Rob Sharenow lamented the lack of “creative energy” and “boring” reality programmes. One can easily point to a sameness caused by networks scrambling for the ‘General Entertainment’ spot on the EPG. What used to distinguish Discovery from Weather Channel is now a very fine line.

The “new voices”, new ideas, new producers that nets desire are out there, but the challenge is how to get noticed. Shoving a pitch in a buyer’s face after a panel session is a proven failure. The same could be said of trying to get in the door without any connection. Cutting through the noise is tough, and so is having the patience to deal with the constant input from nets. This isn’t me talking, by the way, its FremantleMedia North America CEO Thom Beers.

The new voices, new ideas, new producers that nets desire are out there, but the challenge is how to get noticed. Shoving a pitch in a buyer’s face after a panel session is a proven failure.

Believe me, if I knew the secrets to success, I (might) share them. I do know the weapons the arsenal of the independents remain the same as they ever were. Here are some of the must-haves: Unique access, characters, books, new information and an obvious story arc that will carry a series over many years – only the big major events or blue-chip docs stand a chance of being one-offs.

You need an agent, representative or distributor that knows the players. You should pitch to the bigger production companies, to get a Godfather, mentor or experienced showrunner. And you have to know the damn network. (As an aside why is this still an issue?).

You’ll have to have a great pitch reel – nets say they can judge talent via Skype, but it’s a fallback, not a strategy – show your stuff. You also need passion, and know how to focus it.

The good news is that if anyone else knew a sure-fire recipe for success, they’d be using it all the time: for every FX, there is a MySpace. It all brings to mind All the President’s Men writer William Goldman’s view of Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything”.

Gary Lico is the former CEO of CableReady and founder LilOlMe.TV.