Atomic Insights: Stephen McQuillan Reflects on the World Congress of Science & Factual Producers

By Stephen McQuillan for RealScreen

I’m sure you’ve heard of it? The ultimate survival game with hundreds of people all trapped in a dystopian space, fighting for their lives to survive in circumstances where only the very best are capable of staying in the game?  

*Comedy drum roll please, yes this isn’t Squid Game this is unscripted television production in 2023 and for the last week I have attended the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers in Seattle looking for the key to survival in our business!

This is the blue ribbon annual event for Specialist Factual producers and the obvious narrative of WorldCongress in 2023 was about how we all adapt, survive and hopefully thrive in a market that has changed dramatically in the last few years.  

There is no escaping the fact that things have been tough for unscripted producers in 2023.  Some massive buyers in our sector have drastically reduced their spend on unscripted hours or in some cases they have stopped altogether.  Advertising revenues have fallen off a cliff and directly affected broadcasters commissioning budgets all over the world.  Some estimate that 80% of freelancers in our sector are not currently working and some big Specialist Factual producers have pulled down the shutters for good this year.  

We are adapting to a landscape where streaming dominates and noise and marketability, which often means celebrity, true crime or entertainment, is king – so what does it all mean for the jetlagged producers of science, history and natural history that trudged along the beige carpets of a Seattle hotel at the World Congress last week?   

One of the reasons I love the WorldCongress is the collegiate atmosphere amongst the attendees.  Producers feel more open to share their experiences here than at some other markets where everything is about the pitching, and it was encouraging to hear stories which chime with my experience of the market.  

I set up Atomic Television in February this year within the Zinc Media group and it’s been a fascinating year.  We were fortunate enough to land a six-part series with National Geographic International four months after launch, so have been juggling the demands of producing a new series, building the basics of a new business and of course trying to bring in new projects to grow further.  

In Seattle, I sought counsel from wise old heads in the industry and shared stories with fellow new owners and although everyone has felt the challenges hit hard, it was heartening to hear about the fantastic new projects that are getting greenlit.    

The hottest ticket at World Congress is always the What’s the Buzz session, this year expertly helmed by National Geographic’s SVP of Development Charlie Parsons and ITN Productions Rubina Pabani.  It’s a chance to see what’s made noise this year and what the tea leaves might reveal for the future of our industry.  One thing that stood out for me was how many high quality history shows were launched in 2023 and what is coming down the track for next year.  Certainly, in the UK the popularity of podcasts like The Rest is History would indicate that there is a market for history out there and channels like National Geographic appear to be committed to increasing its history output.

Another theme of the conference was the importance of co-production and distribution and innovative new ways of funding projects.  We have been working with multiple distributors and exploring new funding models for projects already this year and certainly left Seattle determined to push those models next year.

One session I attended went deep into the data for unscripted spend over recent years and while it was clear that investment into unscripted projects peaked around 2016 with the arrival of new streamers and it has been in decline since, there is still more money going into unscripted television now than there was in the late noughties, which is often cited as something of a golden era by industry veterans.

Over and over when I spoke to fellow producers I heard the same phrases – “well we’re still here!” and “we have cut costs, but we are doing ok” and the slightly grim mantra that I heard over and over “survive to 25!”  

But amongst the gallows humour and stoicism on display in Seattle there really was a sense that although things had been tough and shows are harder to sell, there is a survival of the fittest resilience deeply embedded in the specialist factual production sector.  

If any group of people can find the tools to survive in the toughest of environments, it’s probably the producers who have sat for hours in edits producing history, science and yes survival shows for many years – and based on my last week this might be the toughest survival show we have ever been involved in!