‘The Bible’ 3/3: A Meditation on the Costs of the Signature Docu-drama and Scripted TV Series

We continue to explore issues raised by the commissioning process for The Bible, a 10-hour docu-drama series from the U.S. History channel

In previous posts:

This post:

  • So what are our thoughts about the cost of The Bible?
  • How would these costs and rights compare to a Scripted Bible series?

Unscripted

Signature Unscripted programs are not cheap

  • Estimates that are ‘on the street’ include:
    • TLC’s Sarah Palin’s Alaska: $1.1+/- million / episode. (But how much of that was for Talent?)
    • History’s America The Story of US:  $1.3+/- million / episode
  • History’s press release places The Bible in the America The Story of US cost category, with lots of CGI and dramatic reenactments
  • But we expect The Bible to cost more than America
    • Consider the relative cost of reenactments in locations like Morocco or Jordan, versus convenient and tax-friendly Canada or states in the North East U.S.
    • And the cost of competitive CGI is being raised year to year

And then we wonder:

  • Are there unique forces at work here to push up the budget — or reduce History’s cost resistance?
    • Mark Burnett is a ‘super-preferred producer’ and industry star
    • Hearst is part-owner of both History and Burnett
  • So let’s take a guess that The Bible costs $1.5 million / hour (+/-)
    • Though History’s share of the cost depends on the rights that Hearst/Burnett retain

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Is it affordable?

A budget of $1.5 million / hour is almost chopped liver for a channel with History’s enviable margins

  • History enjoyed 8 of the Top 20 Factual programs on U.S. cable in 2010, ranked by average prime time audience
  • And the run continues in 2011

But is it the best use of History’s money?

  • History’s success is built on Reality hits like American Pickers (Cineflix) and Pawn Stars (Leftfield Pictures)
    • They garner massive U.S. cable audiences
    • But for a fraction of the estimated cost for an Unscripted Bible
  • So why not invest more in
    • Expanding existing Unscripted franchises?
    • And developing new Reality series to replace the current crop of hits after their inevitable peak?

Possible answers:

  • The Bible puts the history back into History
  • All networks need seasonal promotions to anchor their outreach to viewers, distributors and advertisers
  • The Bible will earn tremendous press, particularly with the involvement of near-celebrity producers
  • And History is doing plenty of Reality series development anyway

Scripted

But what if a U.S. network decides to swing for the fences and green lights The Bible as a Scripted series?

  • What would be the cost?

A fully Scripted Bible would cost a multiple of a premium docu-drama series, due to

  • Talent
  • Union / Guild rates
  • Exotic locations
  • Sets and costumes
  • Legal and insurance
  • CGI, and more
  • Also, the # of plays would be limited

We called experts in the production of historically-themed TV-movies

  • The consensus production cost benchmark for a Scripted Bible is $3.5+/- million / hour
  • The U.S. commissioning network would contribute a majority of the cost for U.S. rights
    • Unlike most Unscripted deals, which are buyouts
  • The executive producer (e.g. Hearst/Burnett) would retain international, digital and other revenue streams

Takeaway

The New York Times (Next for ‘Survivor’ Producer: Bible-Based Scripted Drama’) and much of the trade media reported The Bible as a Scripted series

  • Nobody raised an eyebrow
  • Why?
  • Because at this production cost, and with these revenue streams, The Bible as a Scripted TV series could have been a sweet project for Hearst and History

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SPEAKING ENGAGEMENT

LA ROCHELLE
Sunnyside of the Doc
La Rochelle, France
June 21-24
3D Where is the Money?
For a year now, 3D has been on the rise. Initiatives are announced each week.
Is this new format the next El Dorado, despite the heavy technical constraints?  
Between public subsidies, industrial partnerships, TV copros and theatrical releases:
What is the path to successfully finance a 3D project?   
What is the cost premium for 3D vs HD?

Ghislaine Le Rhun-Gautier, head of 3D project, Orange (France)
John Cassy, Director, Sky 3D (UK)
Baptiste Heynemans CNC (NTP) (France)
Laurent Dondey, DP La Géode (France)
Modérateur: Peter Hamilton, DocumentaryTélévision.com

Also: Trends in U.S. Television
What do U.S. broadcasters want? Who is getting the work? And how much do they pay?
Channels want series led by ‘big characters’. Reality keeps on rising. 
There is less demand for individual documentaries and limited series.
Meanwhile, HBO, PBS, OWN and a handful of U.S. channels commission documentaries.
What are their filters? And is the U.S. market open to international coproductions?
Steve Burns
Peter Hamilton, DocumentaryTélévision.com
Stephen Harris, A&E