Future of TV Briefing: How Axios Entertainment is looking to expand its original programming business

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This week’s Future of TV Briefing looks at how Axios’s entertainment division has its eyes on moving physical production in-house and getting into the scripted programming market.

  • Axios goes to Hollywood
  • Disney’s potential first female CEO, Amazon’s sports czar, the new YouTube aesthetic and more

Axios goes to Hollywood

Axios only formally unveiled its entertainment division in January, but the news publisher already has its sights set on expanding its foray into producing original shows and movies.

“I would love eventually to bring production in-house and be running our own productions in the nonfiction space and then also to branch out eventually into scripted programming,” Erica Winograd, head of original programming at Axios, said in an on-stage session during last week’s Digiday Publishing Summit in Vail, Colorado.

Currently, Axios Entertainment has outside production companies, such as Campfire Studios, handle physical productions for its shows, in collaboration with the publisher’s editorial director Raisa Zaidi. Having worked on “Axios on HBO” — a documentary series that aired from 2018 through 2021 and had been the centerpiece of the publisher’s editorial video strategy — Zaidi is involved in research and interview prep, joins the production on-site for key moments in a shoot, including major interviews, and generally serves as the liaison between the publisher and the production team.

But bringing production in-house would help to make the programs more lucrative for the publisher. 

“Candidly, you’re just leaving so much money on the table [by outsourcing production],” said Winograd, who noted that the publisher would still plan to work with outside production companies when it made sense. Asked how much money is being left on the table, she said that 50% of a show’s production fee goes to the outside producer, “and then also there’s ways to amortize physical production infrastructure over different productions. That’s called ‘billback,’ so you make a little bit of extra money there. So I think once we have a few more shows going, it would be a natural point to [bring production in-house].”

Axios Entertainment isn’t necessarily racing to take the steps into producing its own programming and creating scripted shows and movies, though. At the moment, the three-person team — Winograd, Zaidi and director of development Juliet Bartz, who also worked on “Axios on HBO” —  is primarily focused on producing nonfiction programming, such as “The Money Game,” a documentary series highlighting the impact of the NCAA’s name, image and likeness policy through the lens of collegiate athletes at Louisiana State University.

“We talk about walking before you run a lot. So step one of walking before you run I think is, for anyone here who works in the television business or the film business, [nonfiction programming] is much faster. And I don’t want to say easy, because it’s not easy, but easier [than scripted programming]. In terms of cost and time to do unscripted programming versus scripted, it just takes a lot longer; it’s a lot more expensive; it takes years,” Winograd said.

For comparison, Axios started working on “The Money Game” in January 2023. After pitching Amazon on the show, the publisher had to get LSU on board and did so last summer. Production on the show was then able to start in the fall, in time for LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels to win the Heisman Trophy as college football’s best player. Production is slated to wrap in May, with the show planned to premiere in the fall.

“That one took a year and a half. Typically, I’d say from pitch to screen, it’s a year [for nonfiction shows],” said Winograd.

That’s not including the informal part of the pitch process, though. Given how challenging the market has become for pitching shows to streaming services and TV networks amid all the cost-cutting across the entertainment industry, pitching a show starts before any formal meeting with potential buyers.

“Now it’s really, for me, been about establishing really good relationships with the people who are buying and not doing so much work on the front end, not doing so much deep development [but instead] picking up the phone and saying, ‘Hey, is this something that’s interesting to you? If so, I will keep going,’” said Winograd, a former Quibi executive who had previously worked as head of development at Refinery29 and Vox Media. “In this moment in time, when it’s candidly very hard to sell things, I would just do smart work but a little less work on the front end until you know you have some interest.”

One thing Axios Entertainment has working in its favor is that the division has a fairly broad remit when it comes to the programs it can develop and produce. Rather than limit itself to adapting shows and movies based on Axios articles, its portfolio simply needs to fit Axios’s ethos of “smarter, faster” as well as the news publisher’s coverage areas.

“As long as something is somehow touching business, media, politics, technology, sports — which most things are nowadays — and it’s making you smarter, faster and it has an air of patina to it, we can develop in that space,” said Winograd.

As a result, Axios may be sooner to enter the scripted programming market than the physical production business. “Tomorrow, if the right script or the right book landed on my desk and it felt like a great Axios project, I would try to figure out immediately how to get us involved in it,” said Winograd. “And obviously we would certainly not be physically producing a scripted production because you have to be a studio. That’s a whole other can of worms.”

What we’ve heard

“We’ve exceeded some of our goals with installs and active users, but it’s still a faction of the size of our audience for websites.”

Publishing executive evaluating their company’s year-old CTV app during one of the Digiday Publishing Summit’s closed-door town hall sessions

Numbers to know

22%: Percentage share of national TV ad spending that is expected to go to streaming this year.

~750,000: Number of YouTube creators who have received money through the platform’s Shorts revenue-sharing program.

-7%: Percentage year-over-year decline in traditional TV ad spending in February.

What we’ve covered

Media agency investment execs weigh in on Amazon’s ad-supported tier:

  • Amazon Prime Video’s more reasonable ad pricing has made it more appealing to mid- and small-sized advertisers.
  • However, other ad buyers said Amazon’s ad prices were still on the high side, and its ads tier’s launch was mistimed.

Read more about Amazon here.

Agency spending on TikTok sees a sharp decline:

  • More than half of agency clients use TikTok, according to a Digiday+ Research survey.
  • However, 41% of surveyed agency professionals said their clients don’t spend any marketing dollars on the platform.

Read more about TikTok here.

What we’re reading

Disney’s potential first female CEO:

Longtime TV executive Dana Walden is among the frontrunners to succeed Bob Iger as Disney’s CEO, and the co-chair of Disney’s entertainment division would be the first woman to assume the role at the company, according to CNBC.

Amazon’s sports czar:

As Amazon’s global head of sports and vp of Prime Video, Jay Marine is a key architect of the e-commerce giant’s foray into live sports and may be on the hunt to add NBA rights to that portfolio, according to Insider.

NBC News’ crisis chief:

In the wake of NBC News’ hiring and firing of former Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, The New York Times profiled the news division’s chairman, who has a background in business, not journalism.

The new YouTube aesthetic:

YouTube videos’ quick-paced and high-volume editing style popularized by Jimmy “MrBeast” Donaldson is giving way to a slower, longer approach, of which Donaldson is a foremost proponent, according to The Washington Post.

The difference between the JIC and MRC:

The U.S. Joint Industry Committee and the Media Rating Council are both crucial parties to the TV industry’s measurement makeover, but it’s been unclear what the relation is between the two. So the two groups have sought to set out their differences, which seem to boil down to measurement providers needing to be approved by both the JIC and MRC, according to AdExchanger.

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