Banijay Interview: Inside The Covid-Era Creation Of The World’s Largest Independent TV Producer

Young Wallander
Yellow Bird's Netflix series 'Young Wallander' Netflix

EXCLUSIVE: It was October 2019 and, in this different world, French millionaire Stéphane Courbit had just realized a years-long ambition in seizing control of Endemol Shine Group. His plan was simple: combine his company Banijay with his new $2.2BN asset to create a globe-straddling super producer. Sources at the time described it to us as a “patient pursuit,” but Banijay chairman Courbit would be forced to wait just a little bit longer to finally get his deal over the line.

A six-month regulatory process was stretched out to eight months as the coronavirus pandemic exploded across the world, with every one of Banijay/Endemol Shine’s 200 business units caught within the blast radius. As competition officials deliberated over the new entity’s potential market dominance, the two groups had to work through unprecedented times while remaining in something of a limbo.

There were crisis Zoom calls behind the scenes (Banijay COO Peter Langenberg spoke to every single Endemol Shine production chief around the world in the space of two weeks) but the companies had a legal obligation to operate independently until antitrust approval arrived. Those spring months were so utterly chastening for a largely shuttered production sector that rumors flew about Banijay pulling the plug on the deal.

Jacob Houlind, Marco Bassetti
Marco Bassetti (left) and Jacob Houlind (right) Banijay

In one of his first interviews since completing the takeover, Banijay’s Italian CEO Marco Bassetti denies ever getting cold feet. “We never regret the deal that we made and we never had the mind to change it,” he tells Deadline over a video call from his Parisian office. He’s wearing a jacket because it’s chilly in France — a reminder that summer has long-faded and it’s almost a year to the day since he signed contracts to take Endemol Shine off of Disney and Apollo Global Management’s hands.

Bassetti prefers to look positively on the extended period of regulatory and coronavirus uncertainty, describing it as an opportunity to finesse the merger strategy. He is also bullish about the fact that the deal makes more sense now than it did 12 months ago. The pandemic has quickened tectonic industry shifts and, in Bassetti’s view, the importance of owning totemic brands and being able to invest in talent has become more important than ever. In short: being big matters.

“We were even more convinced that [it] was the right move,” Bassetti reflects, as he surveys a company that boasts global shows including Big Brother, MasterChef, and Temptation Island, some of which soldiered on during the pandemic (Germany’s Big Brother housemates were blissfully unaware of the unfolding chaos beyond their camera-lined walls) or are now firmly back in business. Bassetti also plans to sink €25M ($30M) of investment into development and IP creation over the coming months, marking a real statement of intent as the companies get down to work as a combined force.

Questions linger, however. One source told us that Banijay’s €2.4B ($2.8B) debt pile is so high, that it could run out of road pretty quickly if Covid continues to throttle earnings. Credit agencies Moody’s and S&P Global Ratings have downgraded Banijay since the pandemic, although Bassetti says its bond price is now “pretty much stable.” “They know about our issues, but so far they are committed,” Bassetti adds when asked if investors, including Vivendi, De Agostini, and Fimalac, remain supportive. He’s also upbeat about Banijay’s revenue and expects to outperform the market after leaning into its library and winning Covid-era commissions. Banijay has previously said that the group’s unified sales stand at €2.7B ($3.2B).

‘MasterChef’ Fox

The former Endemol COO admits though that the second wave of coronavirus has “created a bit of a question mark” around future performance, but it’s likely that some of his concerns will have been allayed after production was greenlit in key territories, such as the UK, despite a second lockdown. And the dastardly disease certainly won’t change Banijay’s ongoing intergration, given that this has taken place exclusively in the pandemic era. After creating a plan for bringing together the two businesses, the vision is still being rolled out — country by country — more than four months after the European Commission cleared the takeover.

This means that some territories are more advanced than others. Banijay and Endemol Shine’s merger is complete in the Nordics, for example, but the group only yesterday named Endemol Shine North America CEO Cris Abrego as the person to run its U.S. operations. Turns out that bringing together 120 production labels in 22 territories during a social and economic crisis is not a fast process, though Banijay Nordics CEO Jacob Houlind is matter of fact about the progress he has made.

Based in Denmark, he oversees one of Banijay’s biggest footprints, managing around 20 companies including Yellow Bird, the drama outfit behind Netflix detective series Young Wallander. He has worked to rethink and slim down its operations into a more efficient structure. There is a limit to the number of labels Banijay can “justify,” he says, and importantly, clients want clarity over who specializes in what.

To this end, two labels have been closed in Sweden, including Beat Your Host producer Nordisk Film TV. Over in Norway, meanwhile, Lilyhammer producer Rubicon has been refocused on drama, with its non-scripted projects being transferred to Banijay’s factual and entertainment specialists, Mastiff and Nordisk Film TV.  “We’ve emphasized the fact that this is not a takeover. It’s more like a merger situation,” Houlind says of conversations he has had with creative leaders.

It’s very clear that Houlind, and indeed Bassetti, are conscious of Banijay’s new-found size and the impact that might have on free-spirited program makers. Bassetti refers to Banijay as a “boutique” operation, which is a curious word for a multi-billion dollar empire. What he really means is that production labels themselves are the boutique shopfronts — they just happen to be underpinned by a central mothership that lays on HR, legal, procurement, and financial services. Houlind puts it this way: “Creatives are afraid that everything will become one big Burger King chain, where you would do the same burger, with the same recipe. That is not the case here. We want to make sure that every burger tastes completely different, depending on what kind of outfit it is.”

Peaky Blinders
‘Peaky Blinders’ Caryn Mandabach Productions

Whether related to the takeover or not, high-profile creative leaders have left in recent months. This includes Endemol Shine Australia’s influential chiefs Mark and Carl Fennessy, who are eyeing their “next adventure” after a decade within the group. Elsewhere, Damian Kavanagh quit as managing director of Peaky Blinders co-producer Tiger Aspect last month, while Gil Goldschein is leaving Keeping Up With The Kardashians producer Bunim/Murray Productions. Bassetti insists there has been “very, very little churn” and stresses that he has not cut any creative jobs as a result of the merger.

Group-wide staff have not been protected, however, and there have been a number of departures where roles overlap, not least Endemol Shine Group CEO Sophie Turner Laing. The coming together of distribution arms Endemol Shine International and Banijay Rights has also resulted in role closures. Bassetti is reluctant to put a total figure on the job losses, however. “The integration is not yet implemented as it should be,” he says, suggesting that more roles will be closed in the coming months.

Houlind’s shuffling of the pack will likely be replicated in other territories, meaning that some labels could be closed or reorganized. Bassetti hints at changes at Tiger Aspect in the UK, for example, where Kavanagh may not be replaced and work is underway to assess whether it needs to be producing across comedy, entertainment, drama, films, factual, and kids. UK leaders Peter Salmon and Lucinda Hicks are examining the potential breakup. From a group-wide perspective, Bassetti signaled a willingness to be ruthless. “If a company is not performing, we have to make a sad decision for them and shut the company or move it somewhere else,” he explains.

Integration efforts have not been interrupted significantly by coronavirus, Bassetti adds. International travel has, of course, been disrupted, meaning that big decisions are being implemented via video call. Bassetti bemoaned the absence of soft power lunches and dinners that would have greased the wheels of integration. Houlind has been able to do a little of this, largely because Scandinavia has dealt with the virus better than others. But still, the event marking Banijay Nordic’s final unification took place over Zoom last Friday. With more than a little dash of Danish hygge, employees were sent organic quilted blankets and champagne to celebrate the landmark.

Big Brother
‘Big Brother’ in Portugal Endemol Shine Group

While all of this is going on in the background, Banijay’s producers have been working to keep the lights on. Bassetti says the company’s strength in unscripted has stood it in good stead, and the majority of shows that he expected to be in production this fall are currently shooting. “We have had very few cancellations, most were postponements,” he says, with dramas such as Peaky Blinders being hit hardest. “The fact that we have MasterChef, Deal Or No Deal, Big Brother and Temptation Island, these kinds of shows are unique formats and all the others are copies. That gives us an opportunity to stay alive and strong. Our clients, they cannot renounce these formats.” Houlind adds that the willingness to innovate with established brands is illustrated by the fact that Banijay Finland is moving dating show Temptation Island to Lapland for local broadcaster Nelonen. He laughs when reflecting on a meeting he had with producer Martti Sivonen just before our interview: “It was minus four degrees and he was covered in snow.”

And this is ultimately what it comes down to for Banijay: making programs, whatever the weather. Banijay’s success will not be measured on how well Bassetti knits two big production companies together during a global pandemic, but on how the group capitalizes on its new-found clout by wringing value from the 88,000 hours of content it makes and building a fleet of new global hits. Only then will it become clear if Courbit’s patience has been rewarded.

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