World Congress: 5 Takeaways from Hong Kong

The World Congress of Science & Factual Producers is a conference run by industry professionals for producers and buyers of quality factual television.

It is an event where network buyers and their producers can confidentially share their projects and industry intelligence.

The 2014 Congress was relocated to Hong Kong from Beijing.

  • It was a disruption that came late in the planning cycle and was forced by management turmoil at CCTV-9.
  • Hats off to the organizers for creating such a worthwhile event under such pressure!
  • And here are my Takeaways.

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TAKEAWAYS

1. Partnering with China: A Caution Light

  • China’s factual sector has enjoyed years of impressive growth.
  • Western networks and leading producers have been torn between getting a foothold in a giant territory, and their caution about doing deals in an emerging market and one-party state.
  • As well as needing to develop editorial skills, China’s industry lacked familiarity with standard international deal terms, cost benchmarks, and technical delivery requirements.
  • However, just as the major European and American players relaxed and embraced China as a reliable partner, CCTV-9’s troubles put important co-pro deals on hold.
  • CCTV’s troubles are increasingly seen to be fallout from a power struggle at the very top of China’s ruling Communist Party.
  • This disruption is a very big setback for China’s global reputation in quality nonfiction television.

The news wasn’t all bad:

  • It was business as usual for CICC, the state programming funder. The CICC team at Congress actively created new co-pro projects.
  • The syndicators LIC China and RARE Media continued to do business.
  • So did CCTV-10, the Science & Education channel.

2. Not Much Buzz!

‘What’s the Buzz’ is the famous WCSFP opening session that presents all the hot new trends in factual television from around the world.

‘Buzzy’ trends in recent years have included:

  • ‘Stunt’ television like Felix Baumgartner’s jump from the edge of space.
  • The crazy characters who dominate ‘scripted unscripted’ series.
  • Miniaturized kit that showcases amazing small creatures rather than big mammals in the Wildlife genre.

Here’s a link to our detailed coverage of WTB Montreal 2013 and WTB Washington DC 2012, including lots of clips.

And in 2014?

  • The session hosts were fun, but the clips revealed that there wasn’t much new to get hot about.
  • ‘Real Factual’ may be making a comeback. Maybe we’re getting bored with cursing, tattooed men and over-produced talent competitions.
  • And there seems to be more optimism and freedom to experiment in Europe than in North America, as many publicly-funded broadcasters, like Arte, lighten up their schedules.

And creatively?

My biggest Takeaway is that factual television is in a holding pattern, nervous about the impact of profound structural changes in distribution and funding models, and waiting for exciting new editorial solutions.

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3. South Africa Comes to the Dance

  • South African Indies sent a vibrant delegation of producers to Congress. We introduced the delegates here.
  • This was Africa’s first strong showing at a conference that has been dominated by UK, European and North American producers.
  • The RSA delegation was organized by the Association for Transformation in Film & Television (ATFT), and funded by RSA’s Department of Trade & Industry.
  • ATFT is dedicated to advancing filmmakers from the majority population who lacked opportunity under the old Apartheid regime, and who have ground to catch up.
  • The goal is to create employment and export income by developing producers who are expert in the needs of the world television market. The strategy is backed by a variety of generous government funding plans and tax incentives.
  • You can read about RSA’s incentive schemes here.
  • In a first for Africa, Nakedi Ribane was elected to the prestigious Editorial Committee for 2015’s event, in Vienna Austria. That’s Nakedi in the pic below (center).
  • The South African Indies brought freshness and intensity to Congress. Their concepts were impressive.
  • The were also the best dancers and karaoke singers at party night!

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4. Getting to Greenlight is a Partnership!

My favorite session was a workshop presented by Discovery Europe’s Liz McIntyre and Discovery Asia’s Vikram Channa.

Liz’s unexpected first piece of advice was ‘Free your mind!’

  • She said that creative people all too easily get stuck in a box.
  • We need to listen to great speakers, go on adventures, and above all find ways to get engaged in life outside the narrow responsibilities of our work.

The second message was very clear: Build relationships!

  • Producers must aim to become the development partners with network decision-makers!
  • They need to understand that their target channels are involved in a highly competitive business.
  • The networks filter each concept against their huge store of confidential data about their audiences’ likes and dislikes, and for each minute of the day.
  • The channels also pursue strategies that producers can’t know about. What you see on their schedules today was often planned nearly two years ago.
  • Producers must develop relationships to find out ‘What do the decision-makers think will work tomorrow?’

Takeaways

  • Therefore, when producer pitch their ideas to commissioners, their message can’t be a hard sell: ‘Here’s my great idea! Do it my way!’
  • Their pitch must be inviting: ‘I have a great idea! How can we work together and adapt it to develop a hit with your viewers?’
  • By building a relationship with commissioners, producers will learn about the newest strategies and priorities.

Open Doors

  • Liz and Vikram said that Discovery’s doors are always open to working with producers to create new ideas.
  • Because, according to the presenters, if they shut their doors, the best ideas will be developed by their competition.

5. Next: The Vienna Congress

WCSFP 2015 will be held in Vienna, Austria.

  • The elected delegates who run WCSFP will have quite a job to do after the disruption of the Beijing-to-Hong Kong relocation.
  • Their challenge is to create the urgency of attending a not-to-be-missed peak professional event, rather than just another of the proliferating industry conferences.

That involves promising:

  • Access to decision-makers.
  • Compelling programming that is largely unduplicated by other conferences or in past Congresses.
  • The keys to discovering one of the World’s greatest cities.
  • And fun!

Photos: Megan Kotze

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