The British Invasion: Takeaways from a UK Indie on How to Get and Keep a Slice of the American Unscripted Television Pie

Roy Ackerman is a respected and award-winning UK Indie who’s been involved with shows from Man Vs Wild to Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution and major documentaries from Richard Pryor Omit the Logic to The House I Live In.

He admits to “a mix of good and bad experiences” during his pursuit of business in America.

This week, the Fresh One Productions MD shares the 16 biggest Takeaways learned during his development and production career in the States.

The largely one-way transatlantic crossing was a big subject at last month’s successful Realscreen Summit: PACT led a big British delegation, and a fascinating panel focused on strategies for UK producers. It’s a topic that we’ll explore in depth during the year.

And now: “The Good. The But… And the Money.”

by Roy Ackerman
Managing Director, Fresh One Productions, London

THE GOOD

1. THEY NEED IDEAS

  • The good news is that the reality and non-scripted category is perceived by the US networks as having quite a tough time.
  • So networks are desperate for ideas that will compete with the new golden age of cable scripted.

2. THE PRIZE FOR SUCCESS IS HIGH

  • Shows tend to come in longer runs – they don’t do single run 3-6 parters, except occasionally on PBS.

3. YOU DON’T NEED TO TOTALLY REINVENT THE WHEEL

  • They tend to know what their audiences want and they live or die by commercial success.  Some Brits might see this as risk-averse but they are commercial organisations.
  • So there are very few crazy “let’s-see-if-it-works” commissions.
  • The upside of this is that you can, to some extent at least, construct ideas by studying what works.
  • But there is a concomitant pressure to prove you can really deliver that show.

4. THEY LIKE BRITS

  • We are liked for our creativity with ideas.

JOFR09-0989-1

Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution

THE “BUT…”

1. THEY DON’T ALWAYS TRUST US TO MAKE THE SHOWS

  • UK indies are respected but they tend not to see you as the sole creative drivers of a show.
  • Some VPs can try to manage the show THROUGH you as producers.
  • And, the network will very much want to be sure you have staff who truly get their audiences and programming needs.
  • There are many differences in sensibility between US and UK viewers.

2. US NETWORKS ARE VERY DEMANDING

  • Notes are detailed and usually make the show better
  • But, they can seem tough; don’t expect to be drenched with TLC and “this is great, carry on“.

3. IF YOU GET IT RIGHT, YOU CAN REALLY EXPAND FAST

  • I think US cable networks very much lean towards a small number of reliable suppliers, who’ve made hits, particularly for them.
  • Reliable suppliers of hits are rewarded by repeat commissions.
  • So, there are huge gains to being one of these preferred suppliers.

Chef Race

4. IT’S THE DELIVERY, STUPID!

  • Delivery is everything. Good ideas, averagely produced, are just flops
  • It often plays a far bigger role in the commission than the idea.

5. KNOW YOUR PLACE:

#I

  • US networks are very hierarchical.
  • People really have bosses and they tend to listen to them…
  • In reality all networks are driven from the top, while I think some British TV executives can act like they’re more independent (even if they’re not really).

#II

  • Don’t pitch, primarily citing the success of a UK show.
  • Never forget you’re making American television.

#III

  • Hire experienced USA friendly staff, notably editors, who understand how to construct for USA audience.
  • Shows in the US are cut in a very different way to UK: they are much faster and with a totally different use of interviews, and very little if any narration

6. CHARACTER, CHARACTER, CHARACTER

  • Networks are desperate for cut-through characters and a brilliant memorable series title.
  • Often they’ll build an idea purely around a title or a character.
  • Any show relying on characters and observation will need good casting and a great sizzle.
  • So, you need to spend a lot more on Development up front.
  • They want to see more on tape, and have glossy proposals before they will start putting up cash

THE MONEY

1. AMERICANS MAY COST MORE

  • In the US, across the board, wages are higher, especially on network budgets. You have to budget for this

2. DEVELOPMENT PRODUCERS ARE EXPENSIVE

  • Think about whether you can really manage US development from the UK.

3. US SHOW-RUNNERS RULE

  • Good show-runners with hire well, so best not to swamp them with your favourite British staff.
  • Keep them on track (and budget) by finding a good one who is trusted by the network and is not just working to further their career without regard for budget or the way an indie likes to operate.
  • Treat them well but try to get them to buy into your values and creative as an indie.

4. BUDGETS ARE GONE OVER WITH A FINE TOOTHCOMB

  • Some elements that are often totally normal and acceptable to a network in a UK budget are seen as no-go to American networks – work with a production manager who knows what’s what.
  • “Breakage” or overspends have to be negotiated carefully.
  • Check out in advance the attitude of the network to breakage and on what basis they’ll approve it.
  • There is no production fee: the company takes its margin from `EP fees’ which are expected to cover all the EP’s expenses, e.g. travel, hotels and mobiles. They will look for this if they audit.

5. YOU WANT ROYALTIES, GO TO ENGLAND

  • The old joke from the music business is still relevant.
  • Rights are very hard to hang onto, especially with new ideas.
  • Make your money on the throughput in the budget (remember long runs can mean big total budgets).
  • If the network REALLY wants the show, you might get some rights.
  • Take advice from other indies who’ve worked with that network.

6. AGENTS

  • I have found our agents, CAA, to be really useful.
  • All agents have a package fee which you have to allow for in budgets.

HeadshotRoy

ABOUT ROY ACKERMAN

  • When I was at Diverse, we made the Discovery hit show Man Vs Wild and 2 series of a TLC mini-hit Shalom in the Home.
  • I’ve been EP on feature documentary hits (2 Sundance Grand Jury Awards, an Emmy, Peabody and an Oscar shortlist). We won an international Emmy for a documentary series and sold documentary shows to TLC, PBS and others.
  • At Fresh One we’ve won a Prime Time Emmy for Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, made a popular BBC America cooking competition show, Chef Race: UK vs USA. Dream School on Sundance Channel is into its second season.
  • Richard Pryor: Omit The Logic was Showtime’s most successful documentary since 2004, and we have two more Showtime documentary films – one for the spring, one on the runway.
  • I have several formats with traction. US slate should grow with the arrival of Claudia Rosencrantz, the executive behind such global hits as Pop Idol, X-Factor, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, I’m a Celebrity, Hell’s Kitchen and Dancing on Ice before going on to successfully run the Virgin TV networks.
  • At Diverse we ran an office in New York and here at Fresh One in the US we’re launching with a key partnership with successful format makers Five x Five media in LA. I’ve made US shows from the UK.

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Speaking Engagements

Asian Side of the Doc
Chengdu, China, March 18-21, 2014
Panel: Crowd-funding Platforms in Asia
Panel: 3D / IMAX/ BIG SCREENS for Docs

MIPDoc

Cannes, April 5-6, 2014
Panel: How to Get the Funds: Co-pro’s and Foundations
Interview: Louis Vaudeville, CC&C Paris: The Apocalypse Franchise

AND, don’t miss Hot Docs in the Big TO.
April 24 – May 4, 2014

BTW, We just began to prepare with the Hot Docs team our hot-selling annual International Documentary Program Buyers’ Guide

Women in Film Summit
Pittsburgh PA, May 16-18
‘Documentary & Unscripted Networks Worldwide: What Do They Want?
What Do They Pay? What’s the Deal?’
Watch out for details