Ben Silverman of Electus talks to David Jenkinson about his frustration with the lack of creativity around deal-making in the digital age and his plans to roll out Fashion Star globally as a locally produced format.
Electus founder and chairman Ben Silverman is bidding to create a next-generation content production business. Whether he will manage it or not remains to be seen, but the template is certainly fit for purpose.
It is significant that he highlights the company’s YouTube channels initiative and his views on connected television at the start of our conversation, before moving through his development slate, rather than getting to the digital bit at the end.
“We’re a young company with ambitious plans,” he says. “We’ve put a great team together and brought in a number of assets quickly. We are launching three YouTube channels in association with Google targeting popular culture, Hispanic and food [via the Loud, Nuevon and Food channels, respectively] and have a robust amount of business with Yahoo! in addition to owning College Humor. So at the heart of the company is a strong digital presence and an understanding of how streaming media works, which will be a real differentiator as time goes on.”
With Loud going live on July 2, content for the diginet was announced this month: K-Town is a reality show that will follow the lives of Asian Americans living in Koreatown, Los Angeles, and is being made by HQ Productions, Electus and DiGa.
“Additionally, we are one of the few companies to not be bound by any specific genre but produce across all genres,” adds Silverman. This approach sees a diverse production slate nurtured at the LA-based operation.
On the programming front, Electus is making music specials for NBC with Michael Buble’s Christmas Specials and the primetime reality competition Fashion Star, featuring Elle McPherson, Nicole Richie and Jessica Simpson, among others. NBC renewed its commitment to Fashion Star this month by confirming it in the Sunday 20.00 slot for mid-season 2013.
On the drama slate, Marco Polo is being developed for Starz (in association with The Weinstein Company), while the company’s latest unscripted cable bid, King of the Nerds for TBS, has recently been greenlit.
Elsewhere, Mob Wives on VH1 (with a spin-off show based in Chicago pending) and I’m Not Dead Yet for TV Land (from writer John Sherman, of Fraiser fame, and based on Israeli drama Zanzuri) and Blue Natali for Lifetime (written by Dexter’s Wendy West) are also rolling.
Meanwhile, Oxygen is developing Longest.Date.Ever from Electus and 5x5 Media, a show that sends couples on first dates that last an entire week, and Silverman’s team is also developing a reality series called The Hero with action movie star Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.
Silverman will be looking to push the business out further this year, backed by former Reveille colleagues Chris Grant, now CEO of Electus, and John Pollak, appointed president of Electus International in January. Also on the team are exec VP of advertising Laura Caraccioli-Davis, previously at Starcom, and former Yahoo! Originals head Drew Buckley, now chief operating officer and head of digital at Electus.
This month, two more executives crossed over from Shine International to work for Electus: Cyrus Farrokh has been hired as executive director of international distribution and production and Diego Piasek is now director of international distribution and production. Furthermore, Tim Puntillo has joined the team, after Electus acquired his one-man New York production outfit Mannahatta Productions.
Fashion Star will be the focus this year, with McPherson on hand to convince the international market of the format’s remake potential, following a raft of finished programme sales. “Fashion Star is really fresh and has incredible promise as a local adaptation,” says Silverman.
Electus International has concluded sales of the US show in Australia (Network Ten), French Canada (TVA/Mlle), Korea (CJE&M) and Brazil (Globosat), Latin America (Fox International Channels Latin America), Canada (CTV2) and Asia (Diva). In the local production space, IAC-backed Electus has also secured format deals with Ten, as well as Germany’s Tresor TV, Shine France and Turkey’s Sera Films
King of the Nerds is a recent addition to the catalogue. “It is a celebration and reality competition around nerd culture,” says Silverman. “Nerdom is the new hipdom, and this show celebrates smarts and their quirkiness.”
Aside from rolling out its new shows, Electus will also be on the hunt for ideas to package and roll out globally. “But that’s getting more difficult,” admits Silverman. “It is a more mature market and therefore a more sophisticated market. You really need the right talent to make the idea happen.
“When I look at what we did with Ugly Betty I realise now how key it was to bring in Salma Hayek and cast America Ferrera to make that possible. I felt the same way when I found and bribed Greg Daniels into The Office, and cast Steve Carell. Those were moves that were uniquely available to us as producers with relationships, which continues to give us an advantage.”
So assuming talent is the key, along with pushing more into digital and developing a broad slate, what are the barriers to growth in the current content market?
“In the current market the approach people have to digital is frustrating. Everyone is trying to control everything, and it is all a little bit fear-driven, which makes deal-making a total pain in the ass. People are being so difficult on the deal, rather than just being fair. I feel ‘fair’ usually should be the way deals get made, where both sides feel good. More and more people are fighting hyper-aggressively. People need to recognise that being partners in something that is successful is much better than owning 100% of things that don’t happen.
“We are now in the second innings of what technology-enabled opportunities are presenting – like streaming, compression technology and broadband distribution getting better. And this has by no means demonstrated a cannibalisation of television; if anything it seems to be a new form of syndication for TV as you see the robust deals that Netflix and Amazon are offering.
“My instinct is to make the best content possible and people will want it. Will those people be different from the ones that wanted it before? And are we going to shift some of the attention from the traditional networks to the digital platforms? It’s possible. There is no question that over time more and more people will have internet-enabled television sets and they will be able to watch content on them. We want to be at the forefront of that.”