TFO’s virtual studio has real-world impact on its bottom line: O’Farrell

The French-language broadcaster's CEO Glenn O'Farrell discusses how the innovation has created new revenue streams and production partnerships.
TFO LUV studio

Three years after launching its Virtual World Laboratory (aka LUV studio), French-language broadcaster TFO is opening up its Toronto studio to external prodcos with the goal of creating a new revenue stream and forging new production partnerships.

Initially launched in May 2016, the LUV studio combines the latest software and tech from the gaming world with more traditional production methods. The studio, which combines Epic Games’ Unreal Engine and the Reality Virtual Studio solution from Zero Density, allows the user to create interactive virtual sets.

CEO Glenn O’Farrell told Playback Daily the launch of the studio has been a game changer for the educational broadcaster, both on the production and distribution front, and the decision to make the studio available to third-party productions was a logical next step.

“When we leave the studios on Friday night and this place goes dark, it bothers me to know that we’re not making better use of that for ourselves and for others,” he said. “There’s a combination of factors, strategically, that have brought us to the conclusion to open the studio to others. First, we want to share what we’ve learned, but also to learn what others think of the studio. And at the same time it expands on our mission to create new revenue streams,” he said.

Among the third-party prodcos that have used the studio recently are Montreal’s Trio Orange and Toronto’s Quarterlife Crisis.

TFO first began conducting research into the studio venture in 2015. At the time, both TFO’s YouTube channel and its programming ambitions were growing quickly, but it only had one set (a house and a garden) and was looking for a cost-effective way to bolster both its production output and the variety of its programming.

Since its launch, Eric Minoli, VP, technology and optimization, said the studio has allowed TFO to double its production output. “For some productions were were shooting 20 episodes or segments a day. With the LUV, now we do about 45 or 50 a day.”

The other major benefit of the tech was that it eliminated high costs and the storage considerations associated with building real-life sets. “You’re not spending $100,000 on a set, not tearing it down, not storing it,” said TFO executive producer John Balabik. “You’re literally doing a set on a switch.”

It isn’t just TFO that has been impressed with the capabilities of its new tech. Last fall, the educational broadcaster won a pair of awards – the Content Creation prize and the Jury Prize - at the prestigious IBC Innovation Awards.

While the international recognition for the studio was a shot in the arm for TFO, what has been more important is the impact the LUV studio has had on TFO’s production and distribution pipeline.

On the production front, the capabilities of the new studio have allowed TFO to branch into dramatic children’s content for the first time. Among those projects is Minivers, which used almost 50 different virtual sets – something that simply wasn’t possible prior to the launch of the studio.

The uptick in production volume has also had a significant impact on TFO’s distribution and IP ownership business, said O’Farrell. “The idea behind the studio was to deliver the best educational programming we could in the most cost-effective way, and own as much copyright as possible,” he said, adding that TFO has considerably expanded the volume of content it distributes to PBS in the U.S. via their output deal. More than 4,000 pieces of content produced at TFO’s LUV studio are now available via PBS Media Learning.

With an expanding production and distribution pipeline, TFO is now shifting its attentions to Asian markets. “There is a certainly a market there. Can we get in? I don’t know. Maybe this time next year we’ll be dancing on our success there, or still trying,” he said.