Moving FAST in a New Direction

An obsession and oversaturation of big-budget content is unsustainable for streaming platforms and unrealistic for smaller productions to compete with, says documentary producer Paul Epstein (“Into the Wild Frontier,” “Who Killed Robert Wone”). Here, he offers a few words of advice.

You say oversaturation of big-budget content is unsustainable and unrealistic. What is your experience with that?

What a lot of us feel when we turn on our TV are ‘What should we watch?’ doldrums as we fish around for something we think we should watch for whatever reason. There’s too much content now, and only so much TV average viewers want to watch. This pushes viewers away from watching, especially since always-available content means there’s no need to watch anything immediately. This oversaturation is making itself felt, and the content industry is now contracting. Per The New York Times, networks and SVODs are scaling way back on new content – 24% fewer scripted shows commissioned in the 2nd half of 2022 compared to the first half, and overall 40% fewer new shows since 2019.

I’ve worked in TV and film for over 20 years and witnessed first-hand how the emphasis on high-budget content with celebrity casts has made it difficult for the rest of the industry to create truly great television at a manageable cost. Shows which have compelling storylines and exciting new talent, but lack expensive IP or A-listers, need to be given more consideration by content providers. This is hollowing out the ‘middle class’ of content production – shows are either very high budget or bare-bones, extremely low. If major streaming services or other providers want to embrace a new direction, it’s easy to see that more traditional, modestly-budgeted content that could premier on a premium SVOD and then move to a FAST channel is a great new direction.

What kinds of original programming is realistic for smaller networks and streaming platforms?

Factual dramas offer quite a lot of bang for the buck. Once called ‘docudramas’, they are historical documentaries with premium-feeling narrative content. Well-produced factual drama can capitalize on what I consider history’s nearly limitless free IP – well-known events and characters that either have new stories or creative new ways to tell them. If you make a show about Henry VIII’s wives, for example, almost any viewer will recognize that name and know there will be great, dramatic stories that come with it. History is an endless source of gripping stories that can cover almost any genre, and creative new takes on these stories make them completely relevant to the way we live today. But, they don’t carry the typical IP premiums that big streamers shell out and bloat their budgets with. 

I also think providers should embrace what’s already a slow-moving return to linear programming by creating more ‘on-time’ content, by which I mean weekly or periodic scheduling that viewers need to show up for – and they will, if they like the shows, as we’ve seen with the huge successes of HBO’s “The White Lotus,” “The Last of Us,” and so on. By leaving a gap between episodes rather than dropping whole seasons, you keep viewers in anticipation of the next episode. You get them talking to their friends and family about it. This isn’t a novel idea, of course; before the era of binge TV, this is how everyone watched, and it worked incredibly well for decades. Speaking as a viewer, I’m more than ready for this kind of evolution.

What advice do you give to producers entering the field today?

My main advice to any producer entering the field today is to think outside the box: what new ideas, stories, or formats can I bring to the table – either an entirely new or a fresh take on a well-known story or genre. How can I mash up two genres with a great little-known story?

My other main thought for new producers: perfect your pitch. Know what the real value of your idea is and know how to communicate that to potential buyers. The development gatekeepers of every network or provider are inundated with submissions – so how will yours stand out? Remember, these gatekeepers are actually rooting for you. They want you to walk in with a great show. They all want to discover an awesome new series or format, and that can come from you. Rehearse your pitch and be good in the room (or on Zoom). Your enthusiasm for your show will get potential buyers enthusiastic as well.

 

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