The vogue for long-form true crime series, such as Netflix’s Making a Murderer, HBO’s The Jinx and public radio podcast Serial, points to a new way for the traditional print industry to make money.
There are magazines that have specialised in this sort of material for decades. By taking some of those stories and characters off the page and filming them as immersive multi-episode sagas, news businesses can be attractive content producers for broadcasters.
Time Inc’s UK division, home to a portfolio of 50 magazine brands, has recognised this with a bold move into factual television production.
It’s a big step. The challenge is to turn an organisation full of writers into a TV operation.
Hardened investigative journalists might not immediately bracket the mass-selling IPC real life titles Chat and Pick Me Up with flagship documentary programmes such as Channel 4’s Dispatches or the BBC’s Panorama, but such magazines - and the journalists that work for them - have a deep knowledge base of true crimes and often the contacts to tell the stories again in pictures.
An organisation with around 500 journalists and content makers is “a gold mine of stories”, says Miki Mistrati, an experienced Danish-born documentary filmmaker who Time Inc UK has recruited as executive producer of its TV production division. He says he has never worked in quite such an environment before.
What sets Time Inc apart from a more regular TV production company is the level of 'access' it has, via its journalists, to key protagonists in real stories. It is not having to research programmes from scratch. “Today the television business is so tough it’s really about having access, that is probably the most important thing, to have access to stories and to people.”
A single print article could be the starting point for a six-part series, he claims. “It’s about developing a story [through] a certain person who can give us more than just two pages in a magazine.” Mistrati, who has made investigative documentaries on serious issues including honour killings and corporate use of child labour, is beginning his job by touring the magazine newsrooms, mining ideas from the staff.
Mick Greenwood, Time Inc UK’s director of video & TV, says that all 50 magazine titles - including the likes of Marie Claire, NME and Country Life - have already submitted an idea for a TV format linked to their brand. But it is the true crime genre which holds the most immediate allure. “We are starting with Chat and Pick Me Up because that’s where we are getting most real-life stories and it’s the natural place to start for factual series.”
Other possibilities for programmes are seen in Marie Claire’s investigations work, Country Life’s expertise in rural affairs and the century-old Woman’s Weekly’s extensive archive.
Greenwood joined Time Inc UK two years ago, around the time it rebranded the famous IPC magazine stable, which the American media conglomerate acquired in 2001. He spent his first year building a video team to produce short-form content for the company’s various websites. The team is now 20 strong and produces up to 250 videos a month.
Winning over top broadcasters
Last year, Greenwood focused on developing expertise in branded video content. In 2017 he is turning his attention to TV. “We have got great journalism at the heart of all our publications but what we haven’t traditionally had is a 30 or 60 minute television programme.”
The intention is to win business from “the top five channels or the next 100 channels down, whoever will commission us”, says Greenwood. Talks have been had with the factual departments of the major broadcasters. “Our positioning won’t be in drama or entertainment or anything which isn’t factual based. This company has done its chops on factual print and factual digital and it will be exactly the same for TV.”
Many news organisations long ago recognised the need to have a video unit to complement their written journalism and drive online traffic. Most have created teams to make branded video for commercial clients. Very few have gone into television, beyond doing collaborative investigations with broadcast journalists.
“I came here with this in mind but what I really needed to see was whether people in a print company could think in moving pictures as well as in words,” says Greenwood, who formerly worked at GMTV. He claims to have seen enough to convince him the gamble will pay off. “If we play our cards right then we should be making good quality television programmes that are as interesting and fresh as people find our magazines,” he says.
Time Inc, both in the UK and in the US, still makes “the massive majority of our revenues” from print sales and advertising, but the organisation realises it must have other options as media consumption habits change. “It’s very happy for us to look at all potential new avenues for a factual-based business,” says Greenwood.
In America, Time is already building a reputation in TV off the back of its flagship magazine brand. “A Year in Space”, Time’s documentary study of NASA astronaut Scott Kelly's spell at the International Space Station, was an extension of the magazine’s brand values in print and won a primetime Emmy nomination this year. In total, Time Inc in the US has produced television for networks including ABC, A&E and PBS and won three Emmy nominations. In September it launched an internet TV channel, People/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN), linked to its People and Entertainment Weekly brands.
All this means that Greenwood’s plans are well-received. “I’m not trying to sell unicorns,” he says.
Time Inc has other advantages over the independent television production sector, even in these days of consolidated “super indie” companies. Time Inc International in America is a sales and content arm which can sell successful TV formats around the world. Time Inc UK has a sales team of nearly 200 that would love the opportunity to offer TV sponsorships and advertising to existing commercial clients. And within the Time Inc UK portfolio are the big-selling listings titles TV Times and What’s On TV, providing marketing opportunities for broadcasters that other TV producers cannot match.
All Greenwood needs is that first commission. “Because we haven’t made a television programme it’s difficult to sell a multi-platform sponsorship which includes telly or go to a broadcaster and say ‘We can do it’,” he admits. Once Time Inc UK has one programme “under our belt” there will be a “halo effect”, he predicts.
His video & TV team will remain based in Time Inc’s former headquarters at the Blue Fin building, south London, which the media giant sold last year. It has four video studios in the basement.
It might be expected that the company’s millennial-aged staff, so accustomed to video, would adapt easier to telling stories in pictures. But Greenwood says that “some of the best ideas” are coming from the more experienced and specialist journalists. “They are the people with the best access to the biggest names in their industries and the undiscovered worlds that we might put a TV lens on,” he says. “Our job at the TV team is to uncover the pearls that have been waiting to be told as TV stories and to get a commissioner interested.”
Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell