TV ASIA Plus WEB-EXCLUSIVE: Interview with FIC’s Mark Francis
Q: Tell us about your role in the Hong Kong office?
A: National Geographic Channel (NGC) wanted to make changes to its programming and overall channel strategies. As part of that, they needed a head of production to increase local production across all our 14 territories, all with the aim of driving ratings and deepening relevance. I’m kind of an ambassador for local production on NGC across our 14 territories. We work very closely in the company because we have a lot of offices and teams. These countries not only run the factual channel but the entertainment and movie channel and sports as well. I work pretty much hand in hand with them, supervising them and consulting – It’s more a consultation process where we are taught with identifying what we should be producing locally. Sometimes I get very hands-on involved in executively producing the project. Other times, I’m playing more of the consultant role depending on which market. Some markets (Taiwan and India) we do have already quite a stable tradition of producing factual shows out of their market for their market.
Q: What about the UK production hub that has been set up? How are the decisions made in Hong Kong then connected to that?
A: Well, obviously, NGCI has moved some of its international functioning to London which used to be based in Washington, D.C. They are, I guess, a central coordinating hub that is looking to produce international content but we decentralise our commissioning. If I look at the changes since I’ve come in to before, I would say NGC was commissioning things more from a distance prior to my arrival and that’s one of my reasons for me to come here, that we take more independence on our own within Asia Pacific and start commissioning more of our own projects. There are opportunities to share things with NGCI internationally, but we just needed more initiative drive and focus within our own region. So, hence there was a need to do that.
Q: NGC as a whole seems to be moving away from one-offs and going into series, particularly those that are returnable, and series that are personality-driven. Is that the same for Asian commissions?
A: Yes, definitely. I think everybody wants returnable series because there’s a lot of value in them but obviously our strategy is in line with that as well within Asia. We will do certain specials or one-offs if it’s a very strong story or if it’s very topical or if it’s a major anniversary. Those two sort of have a space in the shadow but I think what we’re saying is we’ve got to prioritise developing returnable series because that’s how production can make a more significant contribution to channel performance. If you have a hit series, if you can identify it’s a good series, then obviously people keep coming back and over the course of several months; you get a big, sustained boost to your ratings. With a special or one-off, it’s not that we won’t do them but we recognise the value of that is still nowhere near compared to what a series can give you.
Q: Some series like Strippers: Cars for Cash, Doomsday Preppers and Family Guns seem to be “lighter”. Are you concerned about that?
A: Not concerned about that and I do think it’s becoming lighter, although I don’t know if lighter is accurate. It’s lighter compared to the traditional perception of what National Geographic is, but everything has to change and grow and keep up with programming trends. I don’t think it is true to say that if we become more fun, it doesn’t stay true to what National Geographic is about. It’s still about exploration in many senses of the word. It’s just that not every show is going to be a Great Migrations-type of special. We can’t fill the schedule with the Titanic anniversary all the time.
Q: How has the Asian output changed since you joined?
A: There’s a significant increase in what we’re trying to do. In factual alone, we’re probably looking in the region of 100 hours a year. If you look at what we’ve been doing the in 2011, for instance, we really wanted to grow our success on all levels; on a local level, regional level and a global level. In August 2012, I got a rating report that said we beat our number one competitor in various Asian territories which made us the number one factual channel in August. So obviously a lot of these new international programmes are working. A lot of our regional and local programming stunts have been working and on a purely local level, what we do in local productions is also playing a part. So if you look at it, it’s sort of three-pronged, with the most important prong being the local one. I also think local is where we could discover the next pan-regional hit idea, format or even on-camera talent.
Q: Tell us about some successful titles that have done well for NGC.
A: Dog Whisperer was a big win for us. We have, internationally, worked on a new title with him which is a spin on Dog Whisperer called Leader of the Pack. That’s quite a milestone for NGC programming. Something like Dog Whisperer, again, may not be associated with the traditional NGC but it demonstrated to us again the power of a hit series. Therefore we want to try and replicate locally as well. Not to have our own Dog Whisperer but to have our own strong local and regional series.
Q: How about the Bruce Lee special that aired earlier in 2012?
A: We did what is our first, sort of, significant regional programming initiative with Bruce Lee: The Legend. The reason behind that was we took an iconic hero and packaged a whole bunch of shows together and positioned it to appeal to the Bruce Lee in all of us. So that on a regional level again is an example of how we’re finding more ways of making our channel more relatable to our viewers. We’ve also got a series called Scam City which goes around to different major cities to identify how people typically get conned. Even within that international series there’s episodes on Asian cities as well. So we’re constantly looking for ways where we up the Asian factor and really start to be more international in our content.
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