Case Study: ‘Globe Trekker’ and How a Deficit Financed Travel Series Became a Winner for PBS and Pilot Productions (1/2)

Is there a way for Factual producers to succeed the old-fashioned way: in U.S. public television?

In this week’s Case Study: How the Globe Trekker series blazed a path to a respectable living for Pilot Productions.

At History Makers and then at Real Screen, we met with Ian Cross, Pilot Productions’ founder and managing director.

Ian began his career as a cadet reporter at the Canberra Times, covering Canberra’s mix of small town goings on and high parliamentary politics.

He went on to serve ABC Australia as a foreign correspondent, and later produced Factual series for Fox and other channels.

This is part 1 of a two-part post on Ian’s Globe Trekker: its history, distribution, audience and business model. 

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About Pilot Productions 

  • Company launched in 1990
  • 2011 turnover: $6 +/- million
  • Staff: 10 employees
  • Contract: 12
  • Offices: London (HQ) and LA

About Globe Trekker

  • 15 seasons
  • Format: 1 hour (58 minutes)
    • Show: 52 minutes
    • Short form: 6 minutes
    • 13 episodes / season
    • Library: 350 +/- hours

Budget

  • $220 +/-  hour
  • Season: $3 million +/-

U.S. Distribution

  • Travel Channel as Lonely Planet
  • PBS since 2000 as Globe Trekker

PBS Format

  • “The U.S. public television 58 minute format is seamless and advertiser-free” says Ian Cross
  • “It’s great for ancillary and international sales”
  • “Programs created for cable are made in ‘acts’ because of the ad breaks, whereas a PBS show is not interrupted by commercial pods, and is a seamless narrative. That realy appeals to me as a producer”

Distribution & Scheduling

  • Globe Trekker is distributed by APT (American Public Television) to 300+ stations
  • “We are present in the Top 25 U.S. markets and 98% of the entire PBS market”
  • APT earns dues from public TV stations that subscribe to its service 
  • Stations are licensed for unlimited runs for a year
  • There is no common carriage of APT-distributed programs
  • Globe Trekker is scheduled on most stations at 9PM on Sunday or Tuesday
  • Episodes are stripped on KCET Los Angeles, which recently dropped out of the PBS system over a fee dispute
  • “APT’s value is that it has a trusted relationship with station programmers”
    • The PBS feed is limited to certain prime time hours and days
    • Station programmers look to APT and other sources to fill the remainder of their schedule
    • According to Cross “The programmers have the power in the system.”

Audience

  • “On Public TV, we earn a .9 rating, and up to 2 million viewers per week” says Ian Cross
  • “When we were on cable with the Travel Channel, we earned  a .1 or a .2 at first, rising to a peak of .4”

We Asked a Programmer at a Major PBS Station Why He Values Globe Trekker?

  • Globe Trekker features an inquiring and spontaneous host (from a small set of hosts who rotate) who experiences a journey through a destination with a “blue highways,” more back-packing than hotel spirit.”
  • “The adventures are not pat, the pacing is sprightly and the indigenously-themed world music is propulsive.”
  • “The hosts are at times eccentric or at least slightly quirky and appealing characters, they bring a sense of humor, and it is clear that there is no promotional element to their focus and destinations common to travel-related programs.”

Next in Part 2/2:

  • Revenue model
  • Takeaways

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