Jul 14, 2020 - Economy

Exclusive: The N.Y. Times doubles down on TV and film ambitions

Illustration of "The New York Times" logo written in chalk on a film clapperboard.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

One of the country's oldest and most established media companies is starting to look more like a Hollywood studio than a traditional newspaper.

Driving the news: The New York Times has 10 scripted TV show projects in development, as well as 3 feature documentaries coming out this year and several other documentary projects in development and production, executives tell Axios.

Why it matters: The company has been relatively quiet about how seriously it has taken its TV ambitions over the past year, in part so that it doesn't set itself up for too much scrutiny in experimentation mode, sources tell Axios.

Details: The Times recently announced a slew of new projects that are being green-lit for air, including:

  • Father Soldier Son,” The Times' first feature documentary on Netflix, will premiere this Friday, July 17. It will be directed by Leslye Davis and Catrin Einhorn, who produced it with Nancy Gauss and Kathleen Lingo, The Times' first editorial director for film and TV.
  • The Jungle Prince of Delhi,” by Ellen Barry, will be adapted into a limited series for Amazon Studios. Barry and Caitlin Roper, editorial director of The New York Times Magazine Labs, will executive produce the show for The Times along with the production company Sister Pictures.
  • "The 1619 Project" will be expanded into a variety of film and television projects in a partnership with Lionsgate and Oprah Winfrey, who will be The Times' creative partner as it develops and produces new projects. Nikole Hannah-Jones, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the project, and Roper will executive produce all the shows on the project.
  • "The New York Times Presents,” formerly called "The Weekly," began its new season last week on Hulu and FX.

Catch up quick: The Times first got its start in TV when it adapted its "36 Hours" travel column into a show for the Travel Channel back when most digital publishers weren't yet licensing many shows for streaming companies.

  • It beefed up its TV ambitions a year ago when it launched "The Weekly" on Hulu, in conjunction with FX.
  • This year, it premiered its first two feature-length documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival and expanded its team to produce more content in-house.
  • "We are not just passively licensing our IP. We do do a piece of optioning and licensing but we also produce more projects," says Roper.
  • The Times named Kathleen Lingo its first editorial director for film and TV in 2018 and has since hired a project manager to focus on documentaries.

Be smart: Television uniquely fits into The Times' business strategy because it offers short-term licensing revenue and builds long-term subscriber relationships.

  • "We know 10 million [digital subscriptions by 2025] is our goal," says Roper. "Off-platform expressions of journalism are a way reach that audience."
  • The Times can also promote upcoming series and documentaries via special print ads in its paper and on its website and apps, said Erik Borenstein, director of audio and TV at The Times.

Audio paved the way for The Times to get its talent on board. "Five years ago, people didn't know what to make of being asked to be on a podcast," says Borenstein.

  • "Now thats it's successful, when Caitlin asks reporters to be on a show, they understand the power of bringing The Times' journalism to new mediums."

The big picture: "Digital publishers have emerged as valuable goldmines of IP to be pursued for TV at scale," says Chris Jacquemin, Co-Head of Digital Content at WME, an agency within Endeavor.

  • Jacquemin and his team at WME have signed at least 30 digital and traditional publishing clients over the past year to work with on TV deals, including ATTN:, Tastemade, Refinery29, Vox Media, and The Athletic.
  • Agencies often help publishers skip development deals and go straight to production deals, saving publishers time and money.
  • The Times was previously represented by WME and is now represented by Anonymous Content for its TV and licensing deals.
  • Jacquemin says one publisher that has really built up its studio capabilities is Vox Media. He says Vox's 2019 deal to bring a slate of original series to Hulu that revolved around its Eater brand was one of the largest deals that's ever been done for a publisher.

Executives at The Times say are given freedom to chose whichever distribution partners make sense for specific projects, with the hope of getting the most number of shows into production from the development phase.

  • "We are absolutely platform agnostic and proudly so," says Roper.
  • The Times has piloted projects across linear and streaming TV networks and production companies, including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Studios, FX and Lionsgate.

What's next: The coronavirus pandemic has made it difficult for a lot of content studios to continue production. But The Times says this shouldn't impact its revenue for now.

  • "We expect to continue to work with FX and Hulu when TV production resumes — likely in the form of a smaller number of longer specials — but we don’t expect this change to have a material impact on our bottom line," Times COO Meredith Kopit Levien said on a recent earnings call.

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