Chicago -- As the cable-TV business continues to spawn new
programming platforms fueled by digital compression, a panel of producers and programming
executives at the National Show here last week painted a rosy picture for nonfiction
programming and documentaries.
"We are in the golden age of nonfiction
programming," said former CBS commentator Bill Kurtis, currently president and
executive producer of Kurtis Productions, a producer of documentaries for A&E
Kurtis had previously bemoaned the fact that his former
employer, CBS, had "given up on the long-form documentary."
Kurtis moderated the panel, which also featured Craig
Haffner, president and CEO of Greystone Communications; Pat Mitchell, president of CNN
Productions and Time Inc. Television; Horst Mueller, senior vice president, North American
operations at ZDF Enterprises; Michael Quattrone, senior vice president and general
manager, Discovery Channel; and Jon Helmrich, senior vice president of international
development at E! Entertainment Television.
"The proliferation of cable has fed the
appetite," Helmrich said, describing how E! evolved from magazine-style features to
its current predilection for docudramas like E!True Hollywood Stories.
Mitchell, for her part, gave much of the credit for the
current momentum behind documentaries to her boss at Turner Broadcasting System Inc., Time
Warner Inc. vice chairman Ted Turner.
"Ted Turner championed documentaries," she said.
"He was doing it in the mid-1980s to the tune of 400 hours per year."
Mitchell added that Turner wasn't interested in building an
audience or making money. "Documentaries create an archive or library by creating
value for the future," she said.
Haffner attributed the growing popularity of documentaries
in the past 10 years to an attractive cost structure and the realization that there
actually was an audience for fact-based programming. "I always believed the audience
was there," said Haffner, a leading producer.
Documentary costs generally run from $150,000 on up. Those
costs are usually recouped from ancillary revenue streams including ad sales, the
home-video market and international distribution. The Internet was also identified as a
potential source for revenue. Mitchell pointed out that the Internet component of Cable
News Network's Cold War drew more viewers than the network documentary series.
Mueller, who said documentaries have always been a part of
ZDF's programming strategy in Germany, warned that people should not assume that
documentaries will succeed simply by being cheap. "We must have production values to
compete with the Hollywood movies," he said.
The panel also discussed the importance of maintaining the
integrity of the form as a key to continued success. "What's most vital is that the
story has to be true. Many documentaries have turned out not to be true," Mitchell
This remark elicited the liveliest exchange of the session,
as Kurtis asked Mitchell if she was referring to incidents like the "Operation
Tailwind" controversy at CNN.
"I'm not referring to Tailwind," Mitchell fired
back, adding that she was speaking about films such as a documentary about fraternities
that was shown at the Sundance Film Festival, and that was later criticized for a lack of