Danny Fenton’s postcard from Russia

Danny_FentonZig Zag founder Danny Fenton’s first experience of Russia included horrible hotel rooms and excellent opportunities for coproduction and format deals, despite the political situation and the local pay TV advertising crisis.

At the time when I was invited to join the Pact / UKTI-sponsored trip to Russia it seemed like a great opportunity to visit a new emerging TV market and also a country I had often wanted to visit but had never had the chance to previously.

At Zig Zag, our previous dealings with the Russian market have been solely through third-party distributors, so this was the first time we’d have the opportunity to deal direct with potential buyers in the market.

By the time the trip came around and after events in Ukraine and the recently applied sanctions on Russia by the West, it appeared timing couldn’t have been worse and there was even talk of the it being cancelled.

However, on arriving in Russia there seemed to be a general calmness amongst our hosts who barely referenced the current political situation. When they did they were generally quite dismissive of it insisting, “We want to show that we aren’t the marauding invaders you think we are!”.

What first struck me about Moscow as a city is that it is surprisingly beautiful and well-maintained, especially in the monument areas around Red Square. Unfortunately, I can’t say quite the same for our hotel that appeared to have a hangover from the Communist era and my hotel room resembled my Grandma’s bedroom from the 1970s. All flock wallpaper, garish red carpet and velour settee. With no lift, no hot water and no restaurant it actually added to the genuine experience of Russia.

I was immediately surprised by how obsessed the Russian market appears to be by American TV. Not only are their networks full of American imports but also their own original shows often borrow some of the format points and style of American formats.

Beyond the American influence, the British are the second biggest exporters of shows to Russia. Of the 10,000 hours a year that are bought by the Russians over half of these come from the UK and US.

The PACT / UKTI group consisted of ten UK producers – one pulled out, stating simply in two words their reason: Mr Putin. Only one of the ten scheduled Russian broadcasters pulled out – it wasn’t clear whether that was a ‘tit for tat’ response or whether they had only wanted to meet the producer that stayed away.

Of the nine or so broadcasters we met plus producers, distributors and VOD platforms, the general consensus is they were fairly buoyant and had money to spend to acquire British formats and finished programmes. Zig Zag has two of our own formats, Exit and Ultimate Brain, on TV Channel Russia, and our medical series Body Bizarre is currently the highest rated show on Discovery’s TLC International.

The Russian broadcasters were also keen to sell their own formats to us, and we were pitched various ideas as potential coproductions, which seemed to have high production values. They claimed to have sold 24 Russian formats internationally last year.

The only fly in the ointment was the recently announced banning of ads on the subscription based pay TV channels.This obviously doesn’t effect the state-owned channels or the free-to-air commercial networks, but for the pay TV services it has resulted in a overnight loss of 30% of their revenue. Already two channels have been forced into closing and another has had to reposition its editorial focus as a result of the changes.

Overall, this was a fascinating trip into a little-known market with a big appetite to engage directly with British TV producers. With 21 free channels, 300 pay channels and seven terrestrial channels, plus numerous regional channels and VOD platforms despite its current political situation, there is no doubt in my mind that Russia remains a TV superpower.