1. Where do you find inspiration for a new show idea?
Ideas can come from absolutely anywhere – and they do. It might be a news article or an interesting person. We also work with a lot of channel execs who can give you a broad idea of what types of shows they are looking for and we develop them from there. Sometimes it comes from meeting someone who you think is a great talent. For example, we are currently working on developing a project with Dan Riskin, a bat researcher from Brown University. We met him when we were shooting “Evolve,” an 11—part series for the History Channel and then used him again in “Monsters Inside Me,” a 6-part series for Animal Planet on parasites. And, when we were filming “Are We Alone?,” a space special for Discovery, we interviewed Gentry Lee, who is Chief Engineer at the Planetary Flight Systems Directorate at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. He was so passionate on the subject that we ended up using him as the presenter for the entire program.
2. What research do you do before going into a pitching session?
You definitely need to know what is working on the channel you are pitching. That’s a no brainer. What have they got? And, what is missing? We also look at the trades, talk to people and network, network, network.
At Optomen USA we also work with our parent company in the UK, Optomen Television, and take some of their successful formats and re-purpose them for an American audience. We re-cast and re-work them specifically for U.S. outlets. We have one example of that with a cooking competition show that will be airing on Food Network in January.
3. What advice do you have for upstart producers trying to get their foot in the door?
Get to know people at the networks. Make friends. This is a business of relationships. Even if you can only get access to a manager or a coordinator, nurture the relationship. They have a seat at the table where the decisions are being made. Not to mention by tomorrow your contact could be the SVP of programs. And be passionate about your ideas.
4. What show do you wish you had produced and why?
Windfall films in the UK just did a live surgery series for Channel 4. How cool is that? There is jeopardy, and drama, and you get to see stuff you've never seen before. Talk about good telly. Of course, if I hadn't been a TV producer, I wanted to be a doctor, so I have some personal reasons for loving it. As the head of a company, I wish I made Deadliest Catch. Great characters, stakes, drama. And it works year after year.
5. What types of shows do you think are most in demand now?
It seems like docu-soaps are definitely back, especially those built around family businesses. They were very popular quite a few years ago and then fell out of favor. Things go out of vogue, but they seem to come back around.
Another big growth area is food programming. Food is big. It has migrated off the Food Network and we are seeing it all lots of other places.
6. What types of programs do you wish were in demand now? (or think should be).
I would love to see more science and shows with educational content on TV - smart television. When I was in public television I produced Colonial House and Frontier House. More of those types of shows are what I would like to see. They were entertaining docu-soaps but had incredible historic content. Television should be entertaining and fun to watch, but viewers should also take something new away from it.
7. What types of projects interest you most and why?
Oh, this is hard for me to answer. As a business person, I want to say simple to execute, repeatable concepts that can be produced season after season. But that wouldn't be true. I'm a bit of a geek, and what I love are exciting, challenging new ideas. The most fun I’ve had is figuring out how to do something new. How do you make serial killers compelling television? How do you do a series on parasites that isn't just gross? How do you tackle evolution? I also love programs with compelling characters who let me into a world I'm not familiar with.
8. How important do you think it is for your show idea to have an online component?
I'm a believer in convergence somewhere down the road, so I think it is important to the networks to have an online presence around every show, but as a producer, it isn't what I worry about. I do look forward to the day we can figure out new distribution models for programs on the internet that give the producer more opportunities for ownership. That day is coming, but we aren't there yet.
9. Where does most of your budget funding come from, if not from the network?
Most of our budget funding does come from the networks we work with. That’s because in the US, most of the cable networks want ownership of projects, and only share a small piece of the back end with the producer. I would like to see production companies being allowed to invest more up front in exchange for a better rights position. In the UK, thanks to the Terms of Trade agreement, independent producers now own more rights in their programs, and public service broadcasters are required to source a quarter of their programs from independent producers. It has given the indies an incentive to invest in developing new programming and makes it much more financially viable for production companies doing business.
10. How often do you attend industry conferences and festivals, and which are most important for your business?
At least twice a year. You have to be out there seeing who's who and what's what. When I was in public television and most of what we did were co-productions, I never missed a MIP. These days I'm always sure to hit RealScreen. But I also never miss the (overly grandly named) World Congress of Science and Factual Producers, which meets once a year in a different city somewhere in the world. This November it is in Melbourne. It is a truly international group of intelligent, passionate producers and broadcasters who get together and dig into the good, the bad and the ugly in the business. There are always great programs to see, new people to meet, and plenty of spirited conversations over cocktails and meals. This year I am also going back to one of my favorites, the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, as we have a program we did for Discovery that is in competition.
Beth Hoppe is President and CEO of Optomen Productions (USA), a Soho, New York-based television production company known for science, reality and factual programming. With Beth in the role of Executive Producer, Optomen has produced for Discovery Channel, HBO, PBS, and the Food Network and is currently producing their third season of Samantha Brown's Great Weekends for Travel Channel. Other recent productions include Monsters Inside Me for Animal Planet, the Emmy-nominated Evolve for The History Channel, Mars: The Quest for Life for Discovery and the Science Channel and Most Evil for Discovery Channel and Investigation Discovery.
Beth serves on the Steering Committee of the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers. She has appeared on panels at RealScreen and the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, served as a jury member for the Japan Prize and has been a judge of the News and Documentary Emmy Awards. She also has served on two National Science Foundation grant review panels and privately reviews grants for other organizations, including the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. She is a guest lecturer at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.
Before joining Optomen, Beth spent many years in public television. She was Thirteen/WNET’s Executive Producer of PBS’s ground-breaking Frontier House and Colonial House and while Director of Science Programs at Thirteen/WNET, two projects, DNA and The Secret Life of the Brain, won Emmy Awards for Outstanding Science Program. At WGBH she directed and produced the science series NOVA on PBS.