Pioneer Productions sealed its reputation with programming about earth sciences, cosmology and the weather but, since then, fast turn-around documentaries on subjects such as Sars have been in demand.
A spring break in Australia resulted in more than a suntan for Pioneer Productions managing director Stuart Carter. While most people’s attentions were taken up by Iraq, Australian preoccupation with the spreading Sars virus proved an early warning of the imminent worldwide crisis.A timely e-mail to the factual department at Channel 4 resulted in a speedy commission. Within three weeks Pioneer’s hour-long documentary, Sars: Killer Bug, which explores the current outbreak and its origins - thought to be the “coronavirus” first identified in chickens in 1937, was not only complete but on air.It’s the second such quick turnaround production Pioneer has undertaken for the channel in as many months. Pioneer’s Space Shuttle: Human Time Bomb? was similarly produced in four weeks following the Columbia tragedy on 1 February.Carter is understandably proud of both achievements and strengthening ties between Pioneer, now one of the UK’s leading science/factual independents, and C4. It was not always so, however - when Pioneer started out in 1989, survival in its early years depended on commissions from the US.”I suppose you could say we were one of the first on the trail of Discovery and TLC,” Carter recalls. “It was hardly fashionable, but we recognised a market there for quality science and factual material.”Pioneer was set up by Carter, a science producer who cut his teeth at the BBC working on programmes including Tomorrow’s World and Horizon; and science journalists Nigel Henbest and Heather Couper. Couper subsequently sold her interest in the business to her two co-founders.”Our specialism may sound niche - earth sciences, cosmology, the weather,” Carter says, “but there proved to be tremendous interest.” The threesome invested time and energy, rather than money, in their fledgling independent.Early commissions included The Neptune Encounter for ITV and one-offs for C4’s Equinox.It was two 13 x 30-minute series commissions for TLC - Wonders of Weather and Body Atlas, however, that enabled the company to establish itself as a business. Around the same time Pioneer’s present head of production, Kirstie McLure, joined and the company’s infrastructure began to take shape.Another early turning point came with Electric Skies for C4, the first in a sequence of 11 extreme weather films the company has made. A further three on the same theme go into production later this year. Pioneer’s reputation in the UK, however, was truly sealed with Raging Planet, a US commission by Discovery which was subsequently bought by C4.”After Raging Planet we were in a better position to discuss UK commissions,” Carter explains. Pioneer then started a relationship with Five, for whom it has now produced between 20 and 30 hours of “popular science”, and now works regularly with Discovery - both in the US and Europe, Discovery Travel, TLC and C4.Programme finance has become another area of expertise for Pioneer. “So many factuals are co-produced or deficit-financed they are, in effect, global properties now,” Carter says. “The skill is to develop the business acumen to put together programmes in a variety of ways. We work regularly with Southern Star, and even C4 International on non-C4 commissions. The issue always is how to balance your business and creative credentials.”Meanwhile, Carter has been keen to evolve Pioneer’s production base.While science still underpins all it does it is also moving into factual entertainment - it recently completed a gameshow pilot currently being considered by US and UK broadcasters. Format development has been another recent focus.”Peaks and troughs which have always been a feature of the independent production business are getting wilder,” he adds. “Your focus has to be on nailing down costs - sit on that cash has got to be the golden rule.” Small wonder he describes Pioneer as “a conservative business”. But it is canny, with it, having bought outright the building it now occupies in Hammersmith and the one next door.One decision that may not at first seem conservative was the decision eight years ago to set up a co-venture facilities business, Rainbow, in Soho, London. The facility has expanded considerably through re-investing profits from post-production, Carter reveals. Pioneer is currently diluting its stake in Rainbow to around 65%.Today, Pioneer Productions sits within Pioneer Media Group. This comprises the production business, Rainbow and two-year-old division Pioneer Online which was set up to manage the company’s internet ambitions which, to date, comprise standalone science site firstscience.com and Pioneer’s own corporate website.Looking to the future, he adds that growing the business to the next level may take external investment or even a new partner, although no negotiations are yet underway. “We’ve already received approaches from a couple of possible buyers,” he reveals. “It has certainly focused our ambitions.”PIONEER PRODUCTIONSFounded: 1988Based: HammersmithOwned: Pioneer Media Group, comprising Pioneer Productions, Pioneer Online and a majority interest in post-production company RainbowStaff: five full-time, rising to 30-50 assigned to different productionsTurnover: #8-10m (projected 2003/4)Profit (net): #600,000 (projected 2003/4)Latest credits include: Nameless! (C4); Sars: The Killer Bug (C4); Ultimate Machines (Five); Tornado Alley (Discovery Travel) Angry Planet (Discovery Travel); Extreme Machines (TLC)Past credits include: Avalanche (C4 - Equinox/Discovery Channel); Body Atlas (TLC); Black Holes (Discovery Channel/C4/ABC); Raging Planet (C4/Discovery); Wonders of Weather; Tornado; Universe; Storm Chasers; The Day the Earth Was Born (C4); Space Shuttle: Human Time Bomb? (C4).