At Time Inc. Productions, It’s All About the Brands

By Cathy Applefeld Olson

After decades of optioning out their IP, Time Inc. leadership had an epiphany. What if the media company instead formed its own production unit to bring long-form stories from its brands including People, Sports Illustrated and its flagship publication to television? Thus was born Time Inc. Productions, which since launching in 2016 already has won an Emmy, set ratings records in the broadcast and cable realms, and begun to expand from unscripted into scripted projects. Bruce Gersh, SVP, strategy and business development; and Ian Orefice, head of programming, tell Cynopsis why its archive is the company’s secret sauce—and spill the beans on new content. Spoiler alert: A format based on People’s Sexiest Man Alive is headed to TV. 

Cynopsis: Why was 2106 the right time to launch an in-house TV production outfit?

Ian Orefice: Our mission at Time Inc. regardless of platform is to take the DNA of premium storytelling and make that come to life wherever people are consuming content. Back in 2014 and 2015 we tried initially with a few shows on television and we found success. As TV consumption became so much more popular, in 2016 we decided that was the right time to fully jump into this opportunity.

Bruce Gersh: We’ve also brought in development people, production people who all come from the long-form world, so we have a group that not only understands our brands but understands how to develop them into long-form storytelling. For years Hollywood producers would rifle through the pages of Time Inc. stories and websites and take that IP to create television shows and now we have the opportunity and mandate to reclaim that territory. And we have the access, that’s another fundamental difference.

Cynopsis: There are a lot of Time Inc. brands. How do you select which projects to develop?

IO: Although we have some scripted projects in the works now we primarily started in the unscripted space. We’re looking at all the brands across the portfolio. We’ve had early success with People and Sports Illustrated. Time was fortunate enough to win an Emmy this year for its production of A Year In Space, which aired on PBS. We also have the gift of having a natural incubator to test content. We have a national audience of well over 100 million uniques, and together with our print and digital scale we reach two out of three Americans every month. So we have the pulse on what the consumer wants from a story-telling perspective. Take what we did with ABC and The Story of Diana. We knew royal coverage across the People landscape was a hit. Every time we posted or did content around the royals and Princess Diana we had a cult-like reaction with the audience, so we could take that momentum and build a long-form program around that.

Cynopsis: You both have extensive experience in television. What’s different about the business today?

IO: On the one hand, you have more platforms that are ordering long-form premium content than ever before. On the other hand, it seems like you have more content creators vying for those hours. So the landscape is arguably more competitive than it’s ever been. So we have to think, How do we differentiate ourselves? We’re coming to the table as fully functional production company, and we’re also bringing the marketing and when you package that together, all that combined is our competitive advantage. When you look at Princess Diana, we took the cover of People magazine and made it effectively a movie poster for the documentary airing on ABC. No other production company pitching a network has that opportunity.

BG: The one differentiator we are probably seeing more of today is straight to series orders. Fortunately we’ve had a lot of success going straight to series because of all the competitive pieces that we put together.

Cynopsis: You’re also working with some big-name outside talent.

IO: When you look at top talent there’s two main things we offer. One, it’s about the brands. When you talk about doing a sports crime show with Sports Illustrated, that attracts someone like Jerry Bruckheimer because everyone grew up with these brands and has a love for them. Also, Bruce and I spent a lot of careful time making sure we cultivate a long-form content team that creates the type of right environment that attracts these type of people. You want an environment that allows them to be who they are and be creative. And we built a very specific team that allows us to do in-house productions and partner whoever the directors might be.

BG: The third leg on the stool is they are incredibly excited about the depth of stories we have in our archives.

IO: What would’ve happened before is they would have called our legal department to option a story. Now what’s happening is, a very high-profile director called us and said, we want to develop something with Time Inc. Productions based on the Life archive. That’s the type of call we would never have gotten before.

Cynopsis: What’s your distribution strategy?

BG: You want the content to be at the best network with the biggest audience for that content. When we looked at 89 Blocks we thought Fox Sports was the right home and audience because they already have a sports audience and are big into those types of stories. When we were working on A Year in Space, PBS was really perfect for that.

Cynopsis: How do you measure your success?

BG: There’s a few levels of measuring, [including] the correlation of the effort we put in and how well the audience has responded. That is the primary trigger in all of television, and once we move on to other platforms, it’s buzz, word of mouth. And this is a business for the company, so we’re constantly evaluating, How do we optimize these programs, whether through secondary windows, international distribution or any other platform.

IO: Princess Diana was a nine-year record hit for ABC in its time slot. People Magazine Investigates has been a record hit on ID. A Year in Space was 50 percent higher than the average primetime audience on PBS. I would add beyond the ratings, the other [metric] is anecdotal. Are we doing what we are supposed to be doing, which is evolving this company in making the DNA of our story telling come to life wherever people are consuming content.

Cynopsis: Can you share any new projects you’re working on?

BG: There’s one global format we’ve been working on that we will develop a global format around very soon—People’s Sexiest Man. We haven’t even taken it out yet. You’re the first to know.

The Cynsiders column is a platform for industry leaders to reach out to colleagues, followers, and the public at large. In their own words and in targeted Q&As, columnists address breaking news, issues of the day, and the larger changes going on in the ever-evolving world of television, video and digital. Cynsiders columns live on Cynopsis’ main page and are promoted across all daily newsletters. We welcome readers’ comments, queries, and column ideas at [email protected].


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