Cable Show 2013: Politics Draws Star Power To D.C.-Based Cable Nets

BET Networks, National Geo, Smithsonian Eye Scripted, Non-Fiction Projects

Washington, D.C., may not be a hotbed for the production of high-profile cable series and specials, but executives at entertainment networks based in the Nation’s Capital say that the city’s politically-tinged atmosphere has drawn talent to their cable projects.

Executives from BET Networks, National Geographic Channel and Smithsonian Channel said celebrities and producers are now looking to participate in both scripted and nonfiction projects with a D.C. backdrop more regularly than in the past, as domestic and international political issues continue to make major headlines.

“There have been great stories being drawn from Washington in recent years, like The West Wing and [Netflix original series] House of Cards, and celebrities have been drawn here to attend events like the White House Correspondents’ Dinner,” David Royle, executive vice president of programming and production for Smithsonian Channel, said. “I think you’re getting much more interaction between [D.C.] and the East and the West Coast, so some of those qualities have come together. Certainly you’ve seen an impact on the Washington production scene.”

Network executives concede that New York and Los Angeles remain the heart of the entertainment business, and executives from BET and National Geographic Channel in particular say they have beefed up their presence in both cities as they look to develop more scripted series and big events.

But being in D.C. brings other benefits to networks that develop nonscripted investigative shows, National Geographic Channels CEO David Lyle said. Nat Geo is a joint venture of Fox Networks and the National Geographic Society, the latter of which is based in Washington.

“It puts us in touch with a number of [the society’s] explorers and adventurers, and it has helped in going to places you couldn’t get access to and getting behind the curtain — and there are a lot of curtains to get behind in D.C.,” Lyle said.  

Lyle pointed to the network’s successful series Inside Combat Rescue, in which the network was able to follow elite Air Force parajumpers. “Honestly, I don’t think we would have been able to do that unless we’d been near to the Pentagon,” he said.

Also the network’s fall original movie, American Blackout, which explores what could happen if the country’s power grid goes down, is based research conducted through access to such government agencies as the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “I don’t think we would get the same level of discourse if we were working out of New York,” he said.

The appeal of telling such important and impactful stories is attracting celebrity talent to D.C., according to Smithsonian’s Royle. He add his network —derived from the world’s largest museum and research complex, based in the nation’s capital — has drawn such stars as actress Ashley Judd, country music artist Trace Atkins and actor Dennis Haysbert to narrate its special three-part series Civil War 360, which will air later this year.

“We’re finding that celebrities are really drawn to us,” Royle said. “They’re in the entertainment world and it’s the heart of what they do, but a lot of them want to engage with subjects that really matter to them. They love the idea of taking their interests and their ability to communicate with the public in an entertaining manner and merging the two.”

For BET, being based in Washington, D.C., has provided the network with the opportunity to tap politicians from the Congressional Black Caucus as well as the White House itself to discuss political issues relevant to its target African-American audience. 

“And it’s also been fabulous to be [in D.C.] during this administration and to be up close and personal to our first African-American president and his family,” she said.  “Whether it’s for our news coverage, on-air news specials or our [Presidential] campaign coverage, being in Washington has been very helpful.”

The network has been able to draw both political and celebrity heavyweights to its big Washington events, such as its annual BET Honors special, which during its five-year run has featured such luminaries as First Lady Michelle Obama, Congressman James Clyburn (D-S.C.), actresses Halle Berry and Gabrielle Union and performers Chaka Kahn and Alicia Keys.

 “One of the reasons we started the BET Honors in D.C. was to have a signature show where we could invite people from the administration and from the Hill to see up close and personal what we do,” Lee said. “Hopefully, we’ll get [President Obama] before he leaves.”