Programming Profile: Casting the CBS Eye on People

Back in the 80s, Andy Warhol thought everyone should have 15 minutes of fame. CBS Eye On People seems to agree, shining a spotlight on a cross-section of people, from unknowns with unusual occupations to personalities in the news like entertainment...
February 1, 1998

Back in the 80s, Andy Warhol thought everyone should have 15 minutes of fame. CBS Eye On People seems to agree, shining a spotlight on a cross-section of people, from unknowns with unusual occupations to personalities in the news like entertainment mogul Barry Diller. ‘I’m looking at the broad spectrum of people,’ explains Geoffrey Darby, president of the reality-based cable venture, launched the end of March, 1997.

‘You can enter any subject through people,’ explains Darby, postulating that a personal story can inspire interest in any subject. ‘That’s basically the way in which we look at all of our programming on the air.’

The lion’s share of original programming comes from CBS News Productions – ’75% of our original production, which is most of primetime,’ according to Darby. While repurposing is the name of the game for the bulk of the schedule, with such series as CBS Classics and 48 Hours Later, the 24-hour service has been developing a small, but growing stable of programming created by independent producers.

Eye on People currently carries two shows from outside producers: I Witness, 13 x 1 hours from BNN Productions (with cbsnp); and A Day in the Life, 20 x 30 minutes from Henry Island Productions, which cover subjects out of the usual media spotlight.

Three more recently acquired series look at higher-profile figures: September Films’ Hollywood People (13 x 1 hours); David Frost: Interviews I’ll Never Forget (13 x 1 hours), a survey of the interviewer’s career produced by his prodco, David Paradine Television; and a 10 x 1 hour millennium project from David Wolper (of Biography and Roots fame – not to mention Welcome Back Kotter), Great People of the 20th Century, which covers subjects chosen by a panel, produced by Wolper and Warner Brothers.

‘We have a sense of what we want to balance our channel, to make sure that we’re not all of one thing,’ says Darby. ‘And so we go out and try to fill holes in our schedule, but then people come to us and we think, ‘boy, we didn’t think of that, but it’s a really good idea.’

Darby is looking to establish a slot for individual one-offs in the fall ‘because there are many excellent pieces that have been created that have no home, especially in this genre – and so we’re also looking at acquiring product that has been made by enterprising documentarians.’ He explains the young station had lacked the resources and space to set one up until now.

‘One-offs are difficult. But an idea that can get us to a strip series, to 50 copies, is an idea that’s more interesting to me,’ says Darby. ‘My goal is to get half-hour series, so I’m looking for properties or ideas that can take a genre of humanity or the human condition and slice it different ways.’

The licence-fee structure is well under that of ‘Discovery or cnn. Our acquisitions budget is very different from those entities,’ says Darby, explaining that as a new network Eye on People doesn’t have the resources or the multiple windows which can justify a premium buying rate. cbs has an anti-budget-release policy, divulging only that the channel determines the amount based on individual properties, with, of course, an unspecified ceiling. The rights required are North American, which includes the Caribbean, but not Mexico, and first window is not required. The terms range from one month to five years.

The shows cover ‘a full range of styles,’ notes Darby. ‘We are really interested in pushing our mandate which is why we do I Witness. Thanks to technology, now we can get smaller video cameras and [the videographers] can go and spend six or seven weeks with a specific subject and document it from that point of view…. It’s very personal documentary filmmaking, and we’re interested in that.’

Darby says celebrity profiles do not interest him, and that his research shows the broadcast landscape to be inundated with them. ‘What isn’t everywhere are unique individual stories about people you haven’t heard about. We do do stories you’ve heard about, but we don’t do it in a sensationalist up-to-the-minute piece.’

Ultimately, says Darby, ‘There are a lot of interesting people out there with fascinating stories that no one really knows about, because there’s no place for them to be in this media world.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.