Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

Preferred Vendors: Multiple Commissions / Multiple Networks. Why?

This week, we ask three questions:

  • Which producers are getting the repeat commissions?
  • Who gets commissions from multiple U.S. networks?
  • And why?

The Data

We created lists of producers who earned commissions for new and returning programs from Discovery Networks, including the digi-nets, as well as AETN and Nat Geo Channels.

Our sources were:

  • Upfront press releases
  • Interviews with helpful producers and network executives
  • Other published sources

The record is useful but incomplete:

  • Press is a strategic activity. Networks are not obliged to report on their programming decisions
  • Many channels announce only partial lists of their green lights
  • Programmers test ideas that are “off brand” but they don’t promote them in the Upfronts when they are striving for consistency in the ad message
  • The level of reported detail varies between channel operators
  • It also varies from channel to channel within the same ownership group
  • Many channels don’t release the order size. Our estimates are often based on a channel’s typical series order.

The Preferred Vendor System

Network television is a fiercely competitive business:

  • The channels follow age-old commercial practices that contribute to profitability
  • The ‘preferred vendor’ is one of these practices

Why do networks tend to concentrate their commissions on producers who are ‘preferred vendors’?

  • Reliability
    Successful producers enjoy a reputation for delivering programs on time, on budget and with the minimum drama.
  • Efficiency
    By working with proven production companies, the channels limit the circle of outside professionals with whom they must interact. Each new producer brings along a supporting cast that includes outside counsel, talent and talent agencies, and inside staff from legal/business affairs, production, finance and other disciplines.
  • Scale economies
    Networks achieve lower costs when producers apply their staff and other overheads across multiple projects.
  • Stability
    Networks want their reliable producers to stay in business. They don’t want to ‘educate’ new production companies year after year.
  • Progress
    Fortified by the stability of the preferred vendor model, the networks freshen up their pipelines by trying out a handful of new producers each season. They typically start them on Specials or on digital network projects.
  • Risk management
    Few new programs are successes, much less hits. Development is a risky environment in which managers above all want to keep their jobs. Bosses may not yell at a development team if a bomb comes from an established producer. They may be less understanding if a development exec had championed a new producer who failed to deliver.
  • Access
    Established producers enjoy day-to-day interaction with their commissioners. They know the audiences – their composition and flow. They can see where their channel clients are hurting. They take advantage of the numerous informal opportunities to pitch solutions that may strengthen the schedule. Success creates access and opportunity.
  • The Parachute
    Programming executives enjoy notoriously brief careers. Many of them build relationships with producers who may employ them after the inevitable reorg.

Discovery Networks U.S.

Near the top of Discovery’s list are Pilgrim Films & Television and Original Productions.

  • Both supply many other U.S. channels
  • The Pilgrim website lists projects with Discovery, SyFy, Spike, WE tv, History, A&E, CBS, VH1, TLC and The CW

Discovery’s Top 5 includes two in-house production units: Discovery Studios and Harpo Studios. Harpo is Oprah Winfrey’s production house — the top producer for OWN The Oprah Winfrey Network.

A ‘Double Winner’ is a production company that appears on two or three of Discovery’s, AETN’s or Nat Geo’s Upfront lists.

  • Like Pilgrim and Original, many of the listed producers are ‘Double Winners’ for channels other than Discovery, AETN and Nat Geo

Discovery Networks U.S.
Select List of Multi-series Producers

ProducerSeriesEps +/-Winner
Pilgrim Films & TV550**
Harpo Studios560
Discovery Studios435
Radical Media436
Original Productions335**
Half Yard340
Sirens Media330
ITV Studios216
Figure 8 /230
Advanced Medical Prodns
Mark Burnett220
World of Wonder216
Digital Ranch220
Atlas Media216
Natural History NZ110**
Go Go Luckey +110**


AETN Networks

Original and Pilgrim are also top suppliers to AETN. The AETN list does not include Lifetime, a relatively recent corporate acquisition.

AETN: Select List of Multi-series Producers

SeriesEps +/-Winner
Original Productions446**
GRB Prodns329
Tijuana Entt326
Hybrid Films239
Go Go Luckey +230**
Pilgrim Films & TV223**
Natural History NZ216**
Leftfield Pictures136**
Half Yard110**


National Geographic Channels

Nat Geo lacks the scale of Discovery and AETN, but is an important and expanding commissioner of factual television.

Nat Geo Television is the production arm of the National Geographic Society, and enjoys an output deal with Nat Geo Channels.

 NGC: Select List of Multi-series Producers

ProducerSeriesEps +/-Winner
Hoff Prods211 **
Natural History NZ212 **
Parthenon Entt113 **
Original Prods14 **
Atlantic Prods14 **


More Concentration Coming?

Factual networks are continuing to  phase out strands whose episodes are commissioned from multiple producers.

They are replacing them with Reality, and increasingly Scripted series, that originate from a single production company.

‘Marry Up’ and Other Takeaways for Aspiring Producers

  • Align with an established producer to pitch and ‘co-produce’ your ideas. Some call this the ‘marry up’ strategy.
  • Join an established production company
  • Don’t pitch a U.S. network on your own!
  • RealScreen’s Global 100 is a useful source of potential marriage partners

Coming Soon

  • The economics of the production company

Please email us with your additions or corrections to our lists of production companies. In time, we hope to build out our model to cover suppliers to most U.S. Factual channels.


  1. Fantastic article, Peter. Thank you again for offering up such well-researched, insightful advice to the greater community of those of us who are striving to not only develop and create the best/most original shows and content possible but to also best navigate the waters of this particular stream of the business – i.e., probably almost everyone currently reading the site.

  2. Another wonderful article, Peter. All this detailed information helps new comers like me to gain an insight & form a perspective.

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