A challenging time for broadcasters always spells a tough time for independent producers. There is just less money around.
From the credit crunch to -fractured audiences, we are all up against it. Pay-TV channels, which have the extra burden of holding back the tide of powerful terrestrial extension brands, are fighting on multiple fronts.
So it seems the timing could not be worse for a successful pay-TV channel to jump into the costly, competitive and completely unscientific world of local commissions.
Commissioning or producing for pay-TV is a risky business. Whereas terrestrials can leverage their risk across several programmes, pay-TV channels can generally afford far fewer bets. It can take years to build a hit from the most promising pilot. Even huge shows such as Seinfeld took three seasons to capture the imagination of the US public.
Here at Paramount Comedy we feel our strong acquisitions slate allows us to take a few risks. For example, we have just jumped into the deep end of commissions with a scripted comedy series. The show puts one of our favourite comedians together with a top-level creative team. A bit scary, but, as they say in the US, “go big or go home”.
And we are not the only ones. From Discovery to Virgin to MTV, pay-TV channels are seeing the advantage of making local commissions a key part of their schedules. Are we just a bunch of bonkers egotists trying to play with the big boys without the cash to enter the game?
Well, it is unlikely that the rigorous management of these major corporations would provide us with that kind of -playpen. Rather, they have seen what has happened on formerly obscure US pay-TV channels. Whoever heard of AMC or Showtime or FX before they -commissioned Mad Men, Dexter or Nip/Tuck?
The budgets are tighter, the runs are often shorter and the audiences are smaller. But these are the biggest shows on these channels. Making fewer shows means they are extremely focused on the success of one or two. They have pride of place within the network and the schedules, which is communicated to the audience. One strong commission can completely reposition a brand. Look at what Matthew Weiner's Mad Men did for AMC.HBO turned down the series. Now AMC, which picked it up, is suddenly the channel of the moment.
Dozens of producers have asked me and my pay-TV -colleagues: “Why should I bother with your channel when I can sell to the BBC or Channel 4 and get more money and larger -audiences?” My answer is that while a hit on the big terrestrials will always be the Holy Grail, in tough times, it does not hurt to hedge your bets.
Jill Offman is UK general manager, Paramount Comedy, supporter of the Broadcast TV Comedy Forum