True indie TVF targets creative deal-making

For ‘true indie’ distributor TVF International (TVFI), 2020 has been a year of caution and opportunity. As with many of its peers in the sales landscape, the London-based outfit has focused much energy on the fallout from the global pandemic.

Some broadcasters reliant on advertising revenues have “slowed” their investment on acquisitions, according to director Harriet Armston-Clarke. Despite slots emerging in schedules, she says, “broadcasters were resilient” and quick to draw on their own “stocks or spare runs” of programming to plug gaps when the production shutdown hit.

“That’s not to say that all acquisitions are off the cards, because there are more people watching,” she adds. “Broadcasters are still buying, but the bar has got to be really high. All acquisitions are being heavily scrutinised.

“Where you may have been able to do a very quick deal in the past, or it would be a larger package, every hour in that deal is being looked at.”

As a predominantly specialist factual-focused boutique sales house, TVFI was able to quickly take stock of the best approach, with “other pots and streams of revenue” carrying the company through uncertain periods. One strategy has been providing smaller but more regular content packages.

The nature of TVF’s library – which comprises current affairs, arts, history and science – means the distributor is already quite “reactive” to what’s topical in society and working with factual buyers and slots compounds this.

For example, the company was able to secure seven hours of coronavirus documentaries, which “flew off the shelves”, according to Armston-Clarke. Additionally, as an output deal with Singaporean media outfit Mediacorp meant TVFI’s Covid-19 content had an “added specialism”, enabling it sell as many as six docs “to the same broadcaster”.

Elsewhere, doing more creative deals with commercial broadcasters such as “repurposing existing shows” in the 4,500-hour catalogue, have kept sales targets on course.

“Those things are protecting our pipeline,” says Armston-Clarke. “The size and scope of our catalogue meant that we were in a strong position to package content creatively.”

This could mean packaging several single docs into a ‘series’ that could fill slots on channels that were preparing for live summer events such as the Olympics and suddenly had significant schedule gaps.

Meanwhile, the closure of dubbing houses meant TVFI looked to reclaim rights to local-language version of programmes where it was appropriate, so they could be re-licensed to other buyers.

Fortuitous timing meant that delivery of Tern TV’s BBC Scotland doc Inside the Children’s Hospital happened as lockdown broke, so TVFI was able to cater for a sudden spike in interest in medical documentaries.

However, the demand was outstripped by supply given the fact that medical shows became “impossible to film” during the pandemic. While Inside the Children’s Hospital has mitigated the halt of some medical productions in TVFI’s production pipeline, Armston-Clarke acknowledges “holes” have emerged where programmes haven’t gone back into production.

However, that has galvanised the team to think creatively about sourcing other programming that has similar appeal in terms of storytelling and tone.

It is further offset by the fact the company acquires programming from around the world, meaning it can cherry-pick from territories that are returning to production. “We have an underwater series that has all been shot by a Japanese crew that is being edited in the UK,” says Armston-Clarke by way of example.

“The pipeline is looking OK - I'm feeling positive about the coming months. We expect a bounce back for a number of our key buyers and we have everything crossed that the commissioners will get commissioning,” she adds.


375 City Road, London, EC1V 1NB Phone number:
+44 (0)207 837 3000