Broadcaster Profile: TVO’s Rudy Buttignol pushes the uncut edge of documentary

While the future of independent voice and artistic integrity is questionable in the commercialized 90s , TVOntario's head of independent production, docs and science, Rudy Buttignol, makes no bones about his search for documentaries with a strong social vision to air...
April 1, 1998

While the future of independent voice and artistic integrity is questionable in the commercialized 90s , TVOntario’s head of independent production, docs and science, Rudy Buttignol, makes no bones about his search for documentaries with a strong social vision to air on the Canadian regional public broadcaster.

‘Documentary is an area where tvo decided it was going to make its presence felt, especially with one-hour and feature-length social-issue docs, point-of-view docs, and auteur documentaries – the kinds of things that are hard to make, or are very controversial in nature, or are provocative. Other broadcasters may stay away from them for a variety of reasons, or because they’re unpredictable in their final form,’ he says.

Buttignol oversees all primetime documentary at the regional Canadian public broadcaster, specifically a history strand, science, and the two social-issue strands: Human Edge, which houses international acquisitions; and The View From Here, commissions from Canadian producers. This year, Human Edge, the first strand of its kind in Canada, is celebrating its tenth anniversary, and The View From Here, its fifth season. Right now, Buttignol is looking to program for fall 1998.

Both strands are shown Wednesdays at 10 p.m. in alternating seasons, and are repeated once a week; however, the length of the slot is not fixed. ‘They’re not format strands,’ he explains. ‘As a result each [show] is a unique work, and they’re a little harder to program; they’re a lot more labor intensive…. I’m able to program stuff that other people can’t because it’s too provovcative or it’s a pain in the ass.’ As well, tvo will sometimes pre-buy entire series, such as The War of 1812, from Galafilm and PTV Productions, and Yo Yo Ma: Inspired by Bach, from Rhombus Media.

In negotiating acquisitions for Human Edge, Buttignol has found that dangling tvo’s policy of uncut, commercial-free programming can reel in filmmakers, despite limited funds. Blue Eyed, a 93-minute film from Claus Strigel & Bertram Verhaag Productions distributed by Munich-based Denkmal Film, was one incidence where the strategy of playing on the filmmaker’s desire to show the film as it was meant to be seen worked.

The German doc came via referral from John Marshall, a u.k.-based colleague. (‘That’s the other way I’ll find stuff. People around the world know your taste and they know the filmmakers and go, ‘You’ll love this.”) Buttignol got so agitated while watching it that he had to pause for a while before finishing. His reaction made him realize it was something worth showing.

‘If you show intelligent programming, as long as there’s some intelligence or artistry or creativity, the majority of the public, regardless of their lot in life or their level of education, are pretty together people,’ he notes. ‘They can figure it out… If anything, I find television is guilty of underestimating its audience.’

Docs are sometimes shown with a call-in session afterward, executive-produced by Buttignol himself. This, plus having a host for both strands in Ian Brown, is a ‘huge liberating factor’ as it gives context to the films. On the flipside, loose cannons occasionally come out of the woodwork, as is inevitable with controversial programming. ‘We’ve gotten everything from bomb threats, death threats, threats of personal violence, hate mail… . You tend to hear from everybody.’

Buttignol has no fears for the future of documentary, citing a rise in popularity of the genre, as well as a greater presence on the growing number of specialty channels. For his own channel, he seeks diversity of views and a strong narrative.

Buttignol travels extensively in order to find product. ‘On an intellectual level I’d like to get a greater variety of material from a different countries, but not all countries are created equal,’ he says. ‘Some are greater producers of documentaries than others, some have a greater tradition of documentaries than others. The u.k. would be really strong for us. Holland has produced some really good films. I get stuff from France, where the broadcasters are committed to documentaries.

tvo rarely gets involved in international coproductions, as available cash is an issue. ‘If we had bigger budgets, I’d love to get involved more internationally,’ he says.

However, Buttignol does not really mind the dig through ‘mud’ for the gems, seeing value in acquiring. ‘It gives you the ability to pick up docs that you may have overlooked. Because if you read a proposal, it’s kind of hard to tell if it’s going to work out.’

‘A lot of fabulous documentaries come out of nowhere. They come from first-time filmmakers; they come from out of the blue and hit you on the head and you go, ‘Wow.’ And that happens a lot, so it’s great to pick up on those.’

Buttignol views cassettes at night to simulate the experience of his audience. ‘Everything I acquire, I watch after dinner, when I’m in the same headspace. What you’re going to watch at ten o’clock in the morning is not what you’re not going to watch at ten o’clock at night.’

Which doesn’t mean he’s committed to screening each production in its entirety. ‘In the first 30 minutes, everybody knows. You just go, ‘Man, what happens next?’ And you also know in the first 30 minutes what you’re not going to buy, and you go, ‘Man, I don’t really care.”

With Paradise Lost, a two-and-a-half-hour theatrically released film about cult-driven child murders, produced by Creative Thinking International for hbo, Buttignol found himself watching until 2:00 in the morning. ‘There’s something about the opening of a film where the filmmaker either consciously or subconsciously reveals all their intentions, and you sort of sense whether they’re going to go all the way. And you realize, oh my God, they’re going for it.’ The doc was shown over two nights.

tvo demands first window in Ontario only for Human Edge – generally not a problem, as it is a limited market with few competitors; however, the occasional conflict comes up with the cross-border Buffalo pbs station.

The View From Here docs usually range in budget from cdn$100,000-$400,000. TVO generally puts in about CDN$10,000-$50,000 for a license fee, getting first-window Ontario rights for 24 months exclusively, and ten plays over five years.

‘Usually, we’re the lead broadcaster; we’re putting in sufficient license fees in order to make the thing happen. I’ve been very pro-active in helping filmmakers pull the financing together, lobbying on their behalf with Telefilm Canada [the federal funding agency]… . Sometimes it helps if the broadcaster stands by the filmmaker’s side as they go through the agencies for financing.’

A number of tvfh projects have done well internationally. Wrestling with Shadows, from Toronto-based High Road Productions, is one tvo-supported film that has scored broadcast commitments from a&e, bbc and arte, among others. When the film was pitched at the Forum in Amsterdam, Buttignol played the role of sponsoring broadcaster. He notes that its success comes from the universality and strength of its story (‘a guy trying to make good in the eyes of his father’), and that as little actual wrestling as possible was a frequent request from buyers.

Buttignol’s commitment to docs undoubtedly stems from his background as an indie producer for 17 years. Buttignol has been with tvo for five years. His involvement in the larger non-fiction circus includes assisting with the Media II Programme workshops in Europe, explaining to European filmmakers the ‘American documentary idiom,’ as he puts it.

Ideally, what Buttignol seeks for tvo’s documentary strands are classics. ‘Those are the ones that do stand the test of time,’ he explains. ‘The ones where you think, ‘Yes, yes,’ and no matter where it shows, or when it shows, it will stand the test of time, and actually help build on our body of culture, and actually build on the myth of our storytelling. Those are the ones I want to program.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.