StoryScout 2024

Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

PACT Webinar: U.S. Networks & Factual Producers: Get Ready for the Content Desert! with Dan Salerno and Michael Hoff

In a webinar moderated by PACT‘s Dawn McCarthy-Simpson, the veterans Dan Salerno and Michael Hoff joined me to explore the COVID-disrupted condition of the production and programming pipeline for U.S. Factual networks.

The big question: Are we heading into a “Content Desert?”

Watch the May 19 webinar or read our detailed notes here!

Dan Salerno

My guests are:

Dan Salerno is a veteran media executive whose career spans multiple platforms across the global television business.  He has been a key member of the leadership team for established and emerging networks, with an emphasis on strategic planning and content development.  Most recently National Geographic’s head of Programming, focusing on programming, development, and strategy, Salerno’s career also includes BBC, Gospel, Fuse, and the original launch team at Discovery and its sister channels.  Involved in a wide range of programming milestones, Dan counts Planet Earth, Walking with Dinosaurs, Mythbusters, Shark Week, SafariLive and Pants Off Dance Off amongst his favorites.

Michael Hoff is the Emmy Award winning founder and executive producer of Hoff Productions. Established in 1993 and based in Northern California, New York, and Los Angeles, Hoff and his team have created more than a thousand hours of factual programming for networks like National Geographic, Viceland, Reelz, Discovery, Netflix, Quibi, History, Science, Animal Planet and many more. Some of his favorite projects include Viceland’s “Donkmaster,” Reelz’s “Ted Bundy: Serial Monster,” History’s “Detroit Steel,” Complex’s “Jeremiah Bullfrog Forks It,” Science’s “What Could Possibly Go Wrong?,” Animal Planet’s “Weird.

My thanks to Dawn and PACT UK for the opportunity, and to Dan and Michael for such a frank discussion!

Watch the Webinar

Password: 9c?M4aEV

May 19, 2020 webinar notes by associate producer Becca Wallance.


  1. Big Question: Is COVID forcing channels and platforms into a “content desert”?
  • Projects that were already in the process of production that were archive driven will be fine
  • When the time comes to get back into the field is where problems will occur
  1. What categories, genres or editorial formats of programs are more or less likely to be paused or cancelled or both?
  • All genres have been paused or suspended
  • There has been a rise in self-shot content, particularly among celebrities, which can be strung together to create more formal content
    • Discovery has done a lot of this- turning over cameras to content subjects (Examples include Discovery’s Expedition Unknown and TLC’s 90 Days in Quarantine)
    • These are short-term band aids though, until society as a whole figures out what to do in the long term
  • In the immediate, everything has been paused, still determining what the timeline will be in terms of when regular production will resume


  • Production only been down for 2+ months
  • Suffering a 2-month delay is not unheard of under normal circumstances (due to network bureaucracies, production realities on the ground, etc.)
  • Heading into a 3-month delay can begin to have a real impact
    • Can programs be delivered on time? Natural history projects with long production schedules are somewhat insulated.  Self-contained family and character driven projects will be simpler (because they have smaller crews), but the larger the crew, the harder it will be to produce
  1. Are certain genres and format being favored because they are not affected by COVID restrictions?
  • Factors that will affect the new timeline are ability to travel, ability to substitute by sending a camera for self-shooting, and flexibility of the crew
  • Some states are reopening/gave less restrictions- Georgia, Florida, Arizona to name a few, while some (like California) are still closed and have very harsh restrictions
    • This affect budgets, especially if traveling to a further location is necessary
    • Questions to consider: What is a state we can go to? What will be the budget of moving a production that was in our backyard and moving it somewhere else?
  • In the phase of brainstorming and coming up with new solutions, including working with a labor attorney to come up with the correct way to manage this new situation we’re in
    • There are very few universals in this area (restrictions vary from county to county, there are new announcements every week, the COVID situation is in constant flux)


  1. Are producers adapting to the development, pitching, production, and delivery process?
  • Networks don’t want to invest in the new development to the production companies
    • Networks want to wait until the production company comes to them with a plan in which the network’s liability is diminished
    • Networks are not approaching production companies
    • It is not a good time for production companies to ask the networks for money
  • There are new concepts coming in, but the networks are going to take a step back, and look to producers to pick up increased costs and logistics
  • Networks are relying heavily on their anchor series, with a reticence to new series with greater risk.
    • This is not specific to factual shows and channels, scripted shows and channels are having the same challenge.
    • The CW and Fox have created “pandemic proof” schedules for the fall with few new programs. CBS has announced a more optimistic schedule, relying on a summer production start.
    • There is an opportunity for shows that went through a single season that under normal circumstances might not have been strong enough to be renewed, but they are less of a risk right now than brand new programs (it is more efficient to renew a deal than make a new deal)
    • This is especially the case if it can be easily executed, depending on where it is shot
    • Network Production and PMD workload volume has actually increased because of COVID-19
    • It’s normal for networks to be looking a few months to a few years out, especially in the factual/documentary space, but this is being impacted as well.
      • If you don’t know what tomorrow brings, it’s a challenge to re-evaluate the game plan, in both the long and short term
      • Inevitably, projects that were going to cost “X” will now cost “X plus”.
      • There is no magic fund to go outside of a network’s business plan.
      • Incremental costs caused by the COVID-19 crisis will all have to be absorbed within a network or parent company’s budget
      • When pitches are submitted (development, pre-production, production, post-production, and delivery), each proposal will have to have an extra section dealing with COVID-19 (is it doable? is it safe? what is the cost?)
    • In a time of disruption, networks prefer decision-making be made easier. Development pitches with clear and concise info are critical.
    • There is an opportunity for factual/documentary programs, as scripted series experience production and delivery challenges.
      • It’s also an opportunity for viewers to test out unscripted shows, channels, and platforms.
  1. How are network teams managing the Zoom/home office process?

Zoom has pros and cons:

Zoom Pros:Zoom Cons:
People are more accessible because they’re at homeIt can be a challenge to reach people: what used to be a quick pop into someone’s office now requires a zoom call with elaborate scheduling
A lot of staff was already outsourced, with teams scattered across the country or even the globeContent development is such a business, that outsourcing in the long term will not be as effective or sustainable
Having a meeting at the start of the day helps to keep everyone on the same page and everyone on the same scheduleThe boundary between work and home becomes blurred
As a producer inside the networks, the process of pitching is similarAs a producer inside the networks, getting closure, network’s being clear on their plan, and greenlights moving efficiently at the same volume is more of a challenge
Workdays are longer because of time differences and the lack of boundaries
There are more distractions (kids, pets, everyday tasks)


  1. How are the channels adapting their schedules to the shortfall, and what are programmers doing at networks to communicate what else they have?
  • The immediate thing a programmer is going to do is figure out where the gaps are, and how to fill them. Today, tomorrow, next week.
  • Some of the factual networks (TLC, Discover, A&E) have really stood out because they already have a solid pipeline of legacy series that have delivered.
  • Some networks with more limited premiere volume are beginning to face greater challenges (Animal Planet, NatGeo Wild, History)
  • It is unlikely that viewers have noticed a gap because the networks are very skilled at utilizing their inventory and creating new content with internal production (Discovery, History, TLC, Animal Planet, Nat Geo)
  • Viewer’s schedules have been altered, so the usual television schedule has changed as well
    • Marathons are key (old school method that still works),
    • Prime time, weekends, and daytime are of equal importance, because everyone is home and schedules are altered
    • Similar to a summer schedule, but it has been bumped up to the spring and may last all year (kids are home, adults are working from home, vacations, and daytime viewing)


  1. Is COVID masking the deeper financial crisis in the CAB/SAT financial model driven by the rise of streamers?

Short answer: yes! The Industry consensus is that this is accelerating trends that were already in play

  • The continued tenuous balance between SVOD and linear services is still present.
  • In the immediate there is downsizing of the ad sales market, as they wait out what the networks will do with the content and when consumers will be ready to spend.
  • There has been a projected decrease of roughly 1/3 in the 2020 Upfront. It could be as much as $7Bn.
  • Advertisers will have to develop other routes to get to targeted audiences
  1. What’s the impact of Ad Sales on the coming Upfront, and potential influencers on commissioning?
  • There is a question of whether there will be the kind of content out there that they will want to be advertising in?
  • Sports are crucial to advertisers
    • NASCAR came back with its first race (6 million viewers), which was much higher than their last race in March. Indicates the viewer appetite for live sports is there.
    • The Last Dance is pulling in a lot of traditionally non-sports viewers
    • The NFL is planning to stay on schedule, and every network is praying that it works because it is important for advertisers
  • There is a trend in shifting towards “comfort food” (Animal Planet, Food Network, HGTV, TLC, Nat Geo Wild), basically family programming
  • There is less certainty about auto and travel in terms of advertising


For Peter-

Q: As an international distributor we have not seen any major downturn in acquisitions by broadcasters WW except by a few channels – in fact there is probably more demand because of the lack of production. Some pre-sales and co-pro are on hold but archive based shows are in demand presently because they can be completed. Is that your experience in the US from US Producers?

A: I know of several projects that are close to being greenlit, though I haven’t seen anything announced yet. Networks considered 3rd party archive producers very quickly, and then they turned to their own internal archives shows first. They will reach outside the longer this goes on. The acquisition market is a real opportunity for networks. For distributions companies: business is good but collecting is bad.

For Michael-

Q: What do you think production will look like in 6 months:

A: We will get to a new normal, we will hit some kind of level, maybe in the fall.  Still wearing masks, a lot of health issues, this will not go away for a while.

For Dan-

Q: What’s the impact on ad sales on the coming Upfront, and potential influence on commissioning?

A: The US Market in the upfront is set to be down by a third, it will depend on the networks.  Different networks have different fiscal years, so it depends where COVID falls in their fiscal year, they will have to adjust their business plans within the confines of the fiscal year.  The real tricky one will be Disney and Viacom come October.  If there is a little trimming of the sails, the two biggest spending buckets are programming and marketing, they will likely be impacted in some way, probably in the next fiscal calendar.

For all-

Q: Netflix must be headed into an even more challenging content desert than the channels with the suspension of their binge-able scripted series, as well as documentary hits like Our Planet.  How are they responding?

A: The Netflix strategy is opaque, they don’t share ratings info, there are no third-party objectives, and no Upfronts, so it’s hard to track what they are buying.  Their audience impact comes from originals in the scripted area, or reruns of popular network programs.  We see Netflix as having two sources of the crisis: 1. Suspension of their scripted series, 2. What will they replace big broadcast hits with? Factual acquisitions and productions?

Their model is based on having an immense amount of inventory so they must be scrambling.  For the subscriber, It’s one thing to stop looking, it’s another to stop buying the service.  Netflix can be compared to HBO, which went from showing other’s content to creating its own.  The difference is that you never cancel HBO, whereas OTT services will be asked “What are you doing for me?” and risk being canceled.

There is a need for a steady stream of content because audiences will cancel if there is not a steady influx of new content, they don’t want to let it sit and not watch.  Short term subscriptions are becoming similar to TVOD.

For Michael-

Q: Are you able to get insurance on productions at the moment?

A: It hasn’t been a problem so far, but everything was already in the pipeline, no brand-new productions.  There is an issue in the UK because they can’t get any insurance against COVID-19.  Networks are not going to take that liability.  Another risk to take on as a business owner, there is more risk.  It is another risk to take on as business owners, and more risk that will get pushed down to production companies.  It begs the question, is there room anymore for small to medium sized production companies since they require more overhead, the cost of insurance is higher, and there is more risk.

Big Takeaway:

  • We know so little. This is uncharted territory for the public’s health, the economy and for the Factual production and programming sector.
  • We have to break down the challenges step-by-step in terms of pitching, developing, production, and delivery, so that we can move ahead in this new era.
  • New communications platforms and organizations that follow the PACT model are necessary to guide and protect us in the US, because it will be impossible for individual producers to do it. This is a collective fight.


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