Former Discovery Network, National Geographic Channel and ION Media top executive John Ford took the helm this week of the year-old Nonfiction Producers Association (NPA), a group of 34 TV and digital production companies involved in original documentary and reality TV production. Ford will continue as head of content for Justice Network, a digital multicast broadcast channel which is most widely distributed on TV stations owned by Tegna. (Tegna is the newly adopted name for the Gannett Co. spinoff that operates TV stations and digital properties.)
"Programming that is authentic will always have a place," Ford told me. "Producers of nonfiction are in the business of making hits."
He said he expects the "types of nonfiction programs will change over time," suggesting that the NPA's members will continue to find new opportunities and outlets for an array of documentary content and the changing reality TV roster.
"Everyone is fearful that 25- to 34-year-olds aren't going to be watching TV," Ford said. "They watch differently.
"Everyone is worried about being displayed and how to measure the viewing of their content," he added, acknowledging millennials' growing reliance on online and streamed video content as a news and information source. He emphasized that this sector still watches linear TV, but on its own terms, such as on-demand.
In a sector where timing is everything, the proposed expansion of NPA seems to come at the right moment. Underscoring the focus on nonfiction content are HBO's deal with VICE Media to launch a daily 30-minute VICE-produced news program, and A+E Networks' stake in VICE Media, with plans to launch a fulltime channel using VICE material early next year.
Additionally, it is widely expected that BuzzFeed will expand its popular Web news coverage, although a BuzzFeed official told me this week that the company has "no news to report yet on our plans around TV."
"Yet" may be the most important word in that response.
The Wall Street Journal reported on July 24 that NBCU may be negotiating with Vice Media and BuzzFeed (among others) in its search for millennial audiences.
As Ford repeatedly pointed out during our conversation, the challenge to nonfiction producers is finding the right mix of stories and topics, production values, and millennial appeal -- along with advertiser support. He acknowledged that "there are a lot of gray areas" right now in delineating reality, documentary and information content.
“The unscripted business is unique in demanding that producers be creative and collaborative, and outstanding entrepreneurs," he said.
Alluding to current NPA member companies, Ford called them "risk-takers who built an industry from the ground up."
For the past four years, Ford has run John Ford Media, consulting with WE tv, Travel Channel, RLTV and NatGeo. At NPA Ford becomes "general manager," succeeding Rick Feldman, the former NATPE top executive, who managed the new group during its first year.