RTL changes the game with blockbuster strategy
Albert Einstein once said that “In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity”. This is also how RTL Nederland (RTL) approached the hard-hitting first months of the coronavirus pandemic last year. The broadcaster launched its “blockbuster strategy” shaking up the traditional programming model in the country and reaped success thru 2020 and into 2021.
In this conversation, Chief Program Officer Peter van der Vorst tells Georgi R. Chakarov about the changes that RTL introduced to the primetime schedule of the main channel RTL4 and how that decreased spending, increased the viewership and helped allocate more budgets to the booming streaming service Videoland.
Drag Race Holland
Peter, let’s begin this conversation with the start of the coronavirus pandemic. What happened at RTL during those tough months?
Everybody was in shock at first and nobody knew what the consequences would be of this pandemic. We could not predict what would be the effect on viewers nor on the choices of our advertisers. It was uncertainty across the board. Many advertisers just stopped with spot advertising. We knew we needed to take measures straight away.

What we did in terms of programming was to pull our second primetime slot on weekdays. We extended the shows in the 20.30 timeslot till 22.00 followed by our late-night talkshow. This was actually a plan we were contemplating for quite a while and wanted to implement in January. COVID speeded up the process. That worked so well and what we hoped for happened: the audience share rose with a couple of percentages. Thus, we were spending less money and gaining a bigger audience share.

What type of shows were included in this “blockbuster strategy” as you call it?
The first thing we did was skip the second timeslot at 21.30. After a few months, we made our big titles like Buying Blind, The Perfect Picture, Married at First Sight a bit longer. The audience reacted well and from September on, the strategy was in full force and delivering good results.

Another measure we took was to air our daily soap Good Times, Bad Times four days a week instead of five. The production company was not able to shoot new episodes and this way we extended the run well into the summer. The audience appreciated it and in terms of results it also worked well.

I believe you almost didn’t air any reruns…
Yes, last summer we hardly aired any reruns and it was all new programming on RTL4. During the weeks of Euro 2020 we had a few reruns in primetime, but we also programmed the daily quiz show Ask Me Anything in the Good Times, Bad Times slot, B&B: Full of Love which was a big hit and sold to Belgium and our late-night show aired all thru the summer.

The late-night show slot was also key in this strategy. How did it develop?
Actually, it is one of the drivers behind our success. We have a strong independent news organization and all of our news broadcasts did very well. We had just introduced our new late-night slot with Eva Jinek and Beau van Erven Dorens and the ratings were amazing. People wanted to be informed, and we were lucky to have such professional hosts to inform our audience and discuss current affairs on a daily basis.

What about the boom of The Masked Singer on Friday night?
The first series had already done very well, and we hoped that the second one would follow suit. It went thru the roof with 4 million viewers and an audience share of over 60% for the finale. Of course, more people were in front of their screens due to corona, but the market share was unprecedented in the past ten years for RTL4.

Mocro Maffia

This season, you have another novelty – you have doubled the episodes of The Masked Singer, doubled Survivor’s slots. What is the reason for this?
We didn’t actually double it. We went from six episodes in the first season to eight in the second and the next season will be ten episodes, with one extra special New Year’s Eve show. This is also part of our “blockbuster strategy” to give people more of what they appreciate. We have always been cautious with the number of episodes because we want to protect our brands but doing it sparingly with love actually makes them stronger. It also allows us to control the introduction of new titles because it is difficult to build new brands. Nowadays we take more time to test pilots before we air something. This strategy makes it possible to take more time to develop new programs.

How does this change the budget?
I can say that spending on RTL4 is down about 10% but everything that we manage to save we invest in our streaming service Videoland, an important pillar of our strategy. Videoland grew immensely –beyond one million paying subscribers. The viewing time was nearly doubled in one year. We are now the number one local service and the number two in the Netherlands right after Netflix.

What type of shows work best on Videoland?
The genres we invest in are drama, reality shows and documentaries. Our biggest hit is the drama series Mocro Maffia with a fourth season coming up. Temptation Island is also a big hit and the other reality shows that we usually aired on RTL5, which we moved to Videoland and they do really well on demand. The second season of Drag Race Holland, also a Videoland exclusive, has excellent results. We really develop programs that reflect the local culture and trends, so viewers can relate. It is the sweet spot we fulfil with Videoland.

You also have Prince Charming there. This brings us to the topic of diversity. Are you planning to develop this line more?
For us diversity, equality and inclusivity are very important. We really make an effort to be an inclusive media company with ditto programming, so people recognize themselves in our programs. I am a gay man myself, so I know how important it is to have role models and shows that represent you. Together with my husband, we adopted our son from the US and I have personally experienced what it’s like for him to have role models, and we really want to integrate that inclusive vision in all our platforms.

The results show us that it works. For example, we created Make Up Your Mind, a show where famous Dutch men dressed up in drag and performed. It really went thru the roof with above 50% share in the 15-34 demo. It brings more understanding and can really be a game changer when it comes to changing perception.

You are creating more and more formats in-house, is that strategy successful?
The Traitors was a huge new hit for us. We developed it with our in-house creative unit together with IDTV and POSVIDEO. It is a very good example of how we take our time to develop formats ourselves. We want to have more IP and if possible also sell the formats internationally. We enacted the format in my backyard to make sure it worked. We were quite confident that it could be successful and were not disappointed. Over 2 million viewers every week and it was already sold to several territories.

How about drama? What do you have in the pipeline?
We have lots of drama in development for Videoland which is the home for quality local drama. The only series on linear TV is Good Times, Bad Times on RTL4. Next year we will launch more than 10 films and drama series in various genres. It is an example of how much we are willing to invest in drama for Videoland. More than we ever did. This is good news for the local industry and I want to be very vocal that we are open to ideas. Decision making is quick at RTL, budgets up to par and makers have a lot of creative freedom.

Prince Charming

When you talk about development, how has your relationship changed with advertisers during the crisis?
Actually, I like to be involved in the conversations about partnerships. We have introduced a new approach which entails sitting down regularly with the biggest advertisers and taking them thru our content slate at a very early stage. This way they know exactly what our plans are for the longer term and they can make well informed choices. That really works and they appreciate being involved at such an early stage. I also like the process because it is creative, and they also share ideas that inspire us.

Besides linear, we also create opportunities for them on Videoland and they are getting more and more interested to place advertising there. We have a subscription tier with limited advertising for a lower price.

Would you say that the crisis made people more creative, more willing to work on new things?
That was already the case and what we actually did was expand our own creative unit which collaborates with other creative partners and production companies as well as with advertisers and other commercial partners. This was the case with The Traitors – IDTV came to us and our creative unit further developed the show. We always seek partners to produce ideas together and that is a good impulse for the production industry in the Netherlands.

Within the group, we also have the Format Creation Group headed by Matthias Scholten, a former colleague, which develops formats that can be produced internationally. This group was created just before the start of the coronavirus pandemic. On Videoland we have several titles created by FC Group. We really want to do more together, and we also see possibilities with producing drama.

Talking about industry and market. What are your expectations for the next few years especially facing an upcoming merger with Talpa and the entrance of more international giants?
That is also the reason for this big merger, which by the way is still under advisement of the competition authorities. Instead of competing until one of us is defeated, it makes so much more sense to work together and create a very strong local media company. As I already said, it is important to have local media that reflect Dutch society and put the Dutch viewers first. We are both very good at making local content. Much better than all the American and other international streamers who tend to pick the Netherlands as a starting point but produce a fraction of local content compared to us! Their competition keeps us sharp, and if we want to survive as a Dutch media industry we have to work together. That’s the only way forward.

Is the public broadcaster also included in this cooperation?
They have strict regulations and sometimes it is difficult for them to cooperate, but we would like to produce more drama together. We also seek partnerships with other parties, such as Streamz in Flanders and the other Flemish broadcasters. We share the same language and already co-produce Big Brother and LEGO Masters. I see more potential in the future.

And how are the Dutch producers looking at all of these changes?
We just had a meeting with them to tell them about the reasoning behind the merger and it went very well. People understand that the biggest competition is coming from the international parties. We explained how much we are willing to invest in new content for Videoland. We just have to broaden our horizon and think outside the linear TV box. Videoland will be increasingly important as a platform which we are planning 70+ titles for next year and out of those, 40 will be new titles. So, that means a lot of opportunities for producers, writers and actors. We are in this for the long term and want to contribute to a healthy and prosperous creative industry. We have the best of two worlds, Videoland on the one hand and performing TV channels on the other hand where we can respond quickly to current affairs.

The Traitors

Yes, your news programs and the access slot have also performed very well.
Indeed, RTL Nieuws is an important pillar for RTL and also sets us apart from competitors, old and new. I am very proud of the investigation skills of our newsroom. Also RTL Boulevard is still growing. Of course, over the summer we had this terrible event with our dear colleague Peter R. de Vries who was assassinated. A lot of people wanted to know what happened directly from us. It shows how important it is to support freedom of speech. Unfortunately, we are still confronted with security issues. It feels un-Dutch, but it is a new reality we are confronted with. I hope we never experience anything like this again.

How about the race for sports rights? Wil you be an active party in this battle?
We have the Champions League and we are happy to have it. We’d also like to stream more sports on Videoland but the competition for the rights is very cut throat and we see a lot of money being spent on Formula 1, for instance. So, for the moment we are careful in that direction because in three years you can lose the rights and you will have built up something that then goes to the competition. For now, we believe we can prosper with the content we are good at.
Peter van der Vorst has been the Chief Program Officer of RTL Nederland since 2019. He will turn 50 this October. In his early career, he worked at Joop van den Ende Producties and Eyeworks as an editor, editor-in-chief and producer. He started his own production company Vorst Media in 2009 where he was both producer and presenter.
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