A Preferred Producer: Hoff Productions between Basement and Buyout (Part 2/2)

In this week’s DocumentaryTelevision.com – we continue our detailed profile of Hoff Productions’ path from freelancer to a leading supplier to U.S. factual channels, including Discovery and NGC.

The story so far: Michael Hoff begins from a base in a spare room. He develops a respectable client list for Hoff Productions. But catastrophe always lurks around the corner.

In this post: Hoff builds scale off the company’s ‘WOW! TV’ strategy. What’s next?

(Budgets / $’000)

Phase 4: WOW! TV

  • In 2003, we expanded from 6,000 SF to 13,500 SF +/-
    • “For the first time I had an office where I could close the door.”
  • Bread & butter product:
    • Male-targeted and sensational
    • ‘WOW! TV’
  • Hoff’s output grew to 60 hours: 60-70 people
    • Peaked at 100-person staff
  • “Our breakeven is 30 hours, or a turnover of $10+/- million:
    • “Specials are loss leaders.”
    • “Single docs aren’t economical.”
    • “But even at this level, every year or so we faced the prospect of a wipeout.”
  • Budgets: “From $200 for hour-long series for the diginets to $400+/- for Specials.”

 More Risk: The Co-pro Trap

  • “2005 was another set-back year. It was a moment where we could have packed it up.” 
  • “We had done mainly co-productions, deficit-financing them so that we would profit from international, DVD and other rights that we retained.”
  • “But we realized losses with almost all of our productions. We had to scale back and let people go.”
  • “We shifted our strategy from co-pros to work-for-hire commissions, and we got back on our feet.”

 Changing Corporate Practice

  • “I personally delegated more of the production oversight and hit the road with our head of development, calling on clients every 3 weeks or so.”
    • “Maybe it’s obvious, but we found that the commissioning execs respond more often with a ‘yes’ the more often we saw them.”
  • Agent?
    • “We did work with an agent for a year or so, and he was often helpful.”
    • “But we decided that were we were better off spending the agent’s fees on internal Development.”

 Phase 5: New York! New York!

  • “We opened a New York office to be closer to our clients.”
    • “We also wanted to draw on a new talent pool and on different knowledge sets.”
    • “We wanted to be less insular.”
  • “Our Development team expanded to five, including two very established executives.”
  •  “We are focusing on character- and personality-driven programming. That’s what the networks want and we are delivering.”
  • “Our goal is to grow and maintain our traditional base of male appeal ‘WOW! TV’, while expanding into more character-driven programming for men and women, plus compelling formats.”
  •  “We are also gaining expertise in 3D production.”

 Programming Trend: From ‘Immersive’ to ‘Personalities-plus-Tape’

The last decade saw a big shift in network programming:

  • “In the early 2000’s, we worked on a mix of specials, limited series, and long-running series that weren’t character-driven. Some of them had presenters, but almost everything was narration driven.”
  • “About four years ago, every network said that they were looking for ‘immersive’ programs. ‘Immersive’ was suddenly the buzzword on every programmer’s lips. Maybe Crocodile Hunter was their model, I’m not sure.”
  • “By early 2009, almost 100% ‘big characters’ and ‘big personalities’.
    • “We used to write pitches that were based on possible people and concepts.”
    • “Now the pitches were based on really strong characters, and on tape that proved it.”
  • “Meanwhile, the competition between the channels has become more and more frenzied, and the programmer’s patience to let a show find its audience has diminished.”

 Business Trend: ‘Deals are More Sophisticated Costly’

  • “Deals are more sophisticated. People across the production process know so much more about rights and deliverables.”
  • “There are more talent-driven deals, and Talent adds a whole new layer to the negotiation.”
  • According to Michael Hoff: “Deals have become much more expensive:”
    • “We used to write a single paragraph pitch and not even bother to sign up the talent.”
    • “Now we can spend $25-30 in time, outside counsel and other resources to develop a concept, sign talent, and create the sizzle reel.”

 Hail Mary: ‘6 Mega-series and a few Specials’

We asked Michael Hoff what would change his life:

  • “Companies need to grow in order to survive.  It is almost impossible to be a ‘healthy’ company and stay the same size.  Bank loans, pay raises and promotions, increased overheads and health costs, and so on: they all require growth.”  
  • “Also, the company needs to grow in order for my job to continue to be personally interesting and to evolve.  My job description changes as the company grows.”
  • “For any kind of financial pay-out that would allow me to walk away, the company probably needs to hit about $20 million a year.  This is secondhand info, but we’ve never had any buyer interest at any previous size. I’ve heard that $20 million is the threshold for becoming an interesting acquisition or merger.”
  • “That would be the equivalent of six long-running mega-series, plus some Specials and pilots.”
  • “So in order for me to maintain an interesting job and secure a reasonable exit within the next ten years, I need the company to grow and evolve to that scale.”
  • “Or perhaps, in the short run we can become dramatically more profitable by improving our margins, which is forever a challenge.  Let’s face it, it’s a tough business.  It’s not for the faint of heart.”


Hoff Productions Credit List

Title Year Client Format
Secrets of Alcatraz 1992 Golden Gate National Parks 1×45 + misc.
Escapes from Alcatraz 1995 Discovery 1×60
Secrets of The Gold Rush 1995 PBS 1×60
Secrets of The Rock: Return to Alcatraz 1995 PBS 1×60
Secrets of The Wine Country 1995 PBS 1×60
Deadly Duels 1996 Discovery Channel 3×60
The Guillotine 1996 Discovery Channel 1×60
Wild Guide 1996 Westinghouse B’casting Intl 13×30
Break Out 1997 Discovery Channel 3×50
Pet Line 1997 Animal Planet 65×30
Public Enemies on the Rock 1997 Discovery Channel 1×50
Fix-It Line 1998 Discovery Channel 50×30
Real Ghosthunters 1999 Discovery Channel 1×50
Disaster Detectives 1999 TLC 4×50
True Crime 1999 TLC 2×50
On the Inside (Season 1) 2000 Discovery Channel 6×50
Ties That Bind (pilot) 2000 DCI Diginets 1×50
Ties That Bind (series) 2000 DCI Diginets 12×45
I, Detective (demo) 2000 Court TV 1x:05
Ghost Detectives 2001 Discovery Channel 1×50
I, Detective (pilot) 2001 Court TV 1×30
Mortuary School 2001 Discovery Channel 1×50
On the Inside (Season 2) 2001 Discovery Channel 2×50
Serendipity 2001 Discovery Health Channel 6×50
Subterraneans 2001 HGTV 1×60
Top Ten Travel (Season 1) 2001 Travel Channel 10×50
Dungeons of Alcatraz 2002 Discovery Channel 1×50
Extreme Funerals 2002 Discovery Channel 1×50
Gardens of Alcatraz 2002 HGTV 1×60
Generation Trap 2002 Discovery Health Channel 2×30
How’s That Work? (Season 1) 2002 HGTV 26×30
I, Detective (Season 1) 2002 Court TV 12×30
I, Detective (Season 2) 2002 Court TV 13×30
Motorcycle Lightning 2002 Discovery Channel 1×50
Top Ten Travel (Season 2) 2002 Travel Channel 10×50
Are We Cannibals? 2003 NGC 1×60
Command Decisions (pilot) 2003 History Channel 2×30
How’s That Work? (Season 2) 2003 HGTV 13×30
I, Detective (Season 3) 2003 Court TV 13×30
nD-Structible 2003 Discovery Channel 1×60
Science Smackdown 2003 Science Channel 1x:08
Subterraneans II 2003 HGTV 1×60
The Launch 2003 Discovery Channel 1×60
Top Ten Travel (Season 3) 2003 Travel Channel 10×60
Alcatraz: Defying the Rock 2004 NGC 1×60
Command Decisions (Season 1) 2004 History Channel 13×30
Command Decisions (Season 2) 2004 History Channel 5×30
Food Crazy! 2004 Travel Channel 3×60
I, Detective (Season 4) 2004 Court TV 13×30
Mother of All 2004 NGC 4×60
Nextfest 2004 2004 Science Channel 2×60 + misc.
Quintessential… 2004 Equator HD 1×30, 15x:07
Size It Up! 2004 Military Channel 2×60
Best Ranger 2005 2005 Military Channel 3×60, 15×0:30
Critical Decisions 2005 NGC 3×60
Interrogation Room (demo) 2005 Fox 1×15
Interrogation Room (pilot) 2005 Fox 1×30
MegaStructures: Berlin Wall 2005 NGC 1×60
Monster Home Theater 2005 Discovery HD Theater 2×60
Monster Truck Tech 2005 NGC 1×60
Nextfest 2005 2005 Science Channel 1×60, 6x:01
Paint Job 2005 TLC 1×60
Wet Paint 2005 TV One 4×30
WingWoman (demo) 2005 We TV 1x:10
Best Ranger 2006 2006 Discovery Channel 3×60
Conquering Niagara 2006 NGC 1×60
Extreme Parenting 2006 TLC 1×60
Fantastic Food Factories 2006 NGC 2×60
From Tree To Table 2006 California Olive Oil Council 1×15, 1x:02
Garbage Mountain 2006 NGC 1×60
Geo Quiz 2006 NGC 1×60
Hidden Armor, Found Treasures 2006 Smithsonian Channel 3×30
Hooked (pilot) 2006 NGC 1×60
MegaStructures: Golden Gate Bridge 2006 NGC 1×60
Money Factory 2006 NGC 1×60
Moonshine 2006 NGC 1×60
Nextfest 2006 2006 Science Channel 1×60, 9×0:30
Of Mice & Women 2006 Zero Breast Cancer 1×45
One Too Many 2006 TLC 1×60
Shark Battleground: The Red Triangle 2006 NGC 1×60
Surviving Alcatraz/Living Hell 2006 NGC 2×60
Thrill Zone 2006 NGC 3×60
Ultimate Factories (Season 1) 2006 NGC 4×60
What’s Your Time Worth? 2006 Fine Living 13×30
Animal Oddities 2007 NGC 2×60
Chain Gang Girls 2007 We TV 1×120
Climate Quiz 2007 The Weather Channel 30x:01
Future Wheels 2007 Equator HD 12×30
Hooked (Season 2) 2007 NGC 3×60
Quit Your Job! 2007 Fine Living 1×60
Top Ten 401(k) Mistakes 2007 Fine Living 1×60
Ultimate Factories (Season 2) 2007 NGC 6×60
Alcatraz webisodes 2008 DCL Online Services 12x:03
Chain Gang Girls 2 2008 We TV 1×120
Devil’s Bible 2008 NGC 1×60
Extreme Forensics (Season 1) 2008 Investigation Discovery 13×60
Hooked (Season 3) 2008 NGC 3×60
Weird, True & Freaky (Season 1) 2008 Animal Planet 26×30
Chain Gang: Maricopa County 2009 Discovery Channel 1×60
Extreme Forensics (Season 2) 2009 Investigation Discovery 13×60
Hooked (Best Of) 2009 NGC 2×60
Hooked (Season 4) 2009 NGC 7×60
Killer Aliens 2009 Animal Planet 1×120, 1×60
Madman of the Sea 2009 Animal Planet 6×60
Man vs. Fish with Matt Watson 2009 Discovery Channel 5×60
Trashmen 2009 TLC 1×60
Ultimate Factories (Season 3) 2009 NGC 6×60
Weird, True & Freaky (Season 2) 2009 Animal Planet 26×30
Witch Hunter’s Bible 2009 NGC 1×60


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One comment

  1. Phenomenal site and reporting and generous sharing of info for up and coming newbies. Thank you for the work you are doing and sharing. The video panel series on Leftfield and Pawn Stars was also incredibly instructive.

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