Upfront: Non-fiction News

October 1, 1998


Discovery is attempting to streamline its acquisitions processes by centralizing purchasing efforts into offices in London and Bethesda. The goal is to provide one-stop shopping for producers, and allow them access to all the cablecasters networks through a single point.

The idea is to create what Dara Altman, senior VP of business affairs, terms a `buy-in’ process, where the DCI acquisitions team will themselves shop productions around to the company’s different divisions to see if they want to buy into the production. The producer will then be offered a single package deal for the rights Discovery wants, rather than having to do multiple deals with different international offices.

The deal, Altman explains, is good for producers because it simplifies the sales process, but it’s also good for Discovery. ‘From an internal efficiency perspective, we wanted to give each of our business units the opportunity to be exposed to the greatest number of programming possibilities.’ The new structure will also prevent inconsistencies in international deals. ‘We were finding that each of the different units, sometimes at the same time and sometimes at different times, were making offers on the same property. I’m a huge stickler for consistency, and I want to be able to say to producers: Discovery is treating people fairly and consistently.’

Altman is not interested, as she terms it, in ‘warehousing’ rights. Discovery will still only take the rights it can use. According to Altman, producers will also not be obliged to part with any rights they wish to retain. Brendan Christie



On the brink of a new millennium, Burbank’s Buena Vista Television Productions and Los Angeles’ Showtime Networks have teamed up on six feature-length docs, meditating on twentieth century America while inviting some of Hollywood’s most noted directors to take a trip into non-fiction filmmaking. Directors Norman Jewison, Barry Levinson, Garry Marshall, Gregory Nava, Robert Townsend and Robert Zemeckis will each helm a feature-length doc, offering their views on humour (Jewison), visions of the future (Levinson), marriage (Marshall), the melting pot (Nava), sex (Townsend), and drugs and alcohol (Zemeckis). A further two topics are under consideration.

‘Rather than take a purely historical look at the past 100 years, we thought it would be interesting to have these directors, who have influenced the world through their films, present their own distinct viewpoints,’ explains Mark Zakarin, executive VP original programming at Showtime Networks. Paul Villadolid, senior VP of specials and non-fiction programming, Buena Vista Television Productions, adds that ‘this is one of the only millennium projects to encourage a subjective approach to the twentieth century.’

Production on the features began in May of this year, with Jewison’s and Townsend’s projects the first two off the launch pad.

The docs are a production of Los Angeles’ 5759 Productions in association with Buena Vista Television Productions, with Sandra M. Itkoff as the project’s executive producer and Lesli Klainberg as supervising producer. The documentaries will premiere on Showtime. Buena Vista Home Entertainment holds video rights.

The project further supports Showtime’s increasing interest in non-fiction movies, evidenced by their premiere of Michael Apted’s 14 Up in America, the U.S. version of his original British doc series, earlier this year. As Zakarin explains: ‘We are a movies and series network and usually… that means fiction but… we will look at the kind of non-fiction doc projects that have the kind of cultural scope and impact that 14 Up in America did, and that these tremendously talented directors will have in taking a look at our century.’

The first film of the informally titled ‘Millennium Retrospective’ will air in January 1999 with others following on a monthly basis. The six, possibly eight, films will then be re-screened at year’s end in a ‘movie marathon’ as the odometer clicks over to the year 2000.

Nancy Hughes



The National Geographic Channel Europe (NGCE) has celebrated its first birthday by acquiring 50 hours of prestigious primetime factual programming from U.K. broadcaster Channel 4.

Highlights within the package include Phil Agland’s award-winning series from China, Beyond The Clouds, as well as films from the documentary strands Equinox, To The Ends Of The Earth and Encounters.

Channel 4 International director of sales, Stephen Mowbray, expressed his delight in being able to add a ‘premium brand such as NGCE’ to his client base. However, he stressed that the deal was the continuation of an existing relationship which has already seen C4I and National Geographic Television coproduce ten of the hours that make up the package.

From NGCE’s point of view, the deal is a renewed sign of its aggressive expansion plans in Europe, where it now has access to around 18 million homes. It recently launched a dedicated Dutch channel to join a growing roster of analog and digital services in the U.K., Ireland, Scandinavia, Israel and Poland.

The growth of the NGCE operation has created a voracious demand for programming. In addition to the C4I deal, it has already embarked on a joint venture with Carlton Television in the U.K. which will lead to the production of 300 new hours of programming in the next three years.

For C4I, the new deal underlines the increasing opportunities for distributors of quality factual programs as the European channel market continues to expand. Only a month ago, C4I also sold 90 hours of programs to Discovery Networks Europe, including the top-rated air disaster investigations series Black Box. Andy Fry



Leslie Weiner, Gedeon’s head of coproductions, has left the company to join VM Productions, a Paris-based independent producer known for popular scientific programming. Its magazine series e=M6 is entering an eighth season on M6 in primetime. That series led to commissions for scientific programs from France 2 (Les Grandes Enigmes de la Science) and La Cinq (Cinq sur Cinq and Passe-partout), and more product for M6 (including one-off specials and a series called Passé-simple).

Weiner, who’s been with Gedeon since 1988 and has a long-standing relationship with Pilot Productions in the U.K., will be aiming to raise vm’s profile as a potential partner for international coproduction. ‘VM has become a reference for quality programs in France, but it doesn’t have the experience of working abroad,’ says Weiner. ‘My role is to develop documentary projects with international appeal, and put together the teams to make those projects.

Among the projects top-of-mind for Weiner is a fiction series in development, fiction being an area still novel for Weiner. Cellule de crise, for which a pilot has been completed, has plots that wrap around strategies employed by police, scientists and military in response to ecological disasters.

As for feature documentaries, VM is working on Raves, in which a young anthropologist travels Europe to track the culture; and Campers of the World Cup (working title), in which camera crews spent a month and a half living side-by-side with campers in the tent village of Bois de Boulogne.

VM is the European coproduction partner on Mystery in the Mediterranean, a US$1.2 million project to be shot in the summer of 1999 with New York-based Partisan Pictures (Peter Schnall and Brian Breger, former Nat Geo senior producers), underwater explorer Bob Ballard and Harvard archeology professor Larry Stager. The film will track excavations in the ancient sea port of Ashkelon, Israel – home of over 5000 years of consecutive civilizations.

Also in co-development with Partisan is Mommy, My Brain Hurts, a US$490,000 film about the latest scientific revelations on brain dysfunction. The project will be shot and directed by Schnall.

Having completed projects budgeted at a total of Fr 44 million in 1997, VM is projecting expenditures of Fr 60 million this year. vm also produces 3D computer animation and multi-media projects.

At press time, Weiner had not been replaced at Gedeon and no word on potential candidates. Mary Ellen Armstrong



New York City’s PBS station is getting ready for a new era of television production and broadcasting with the construction of a state of the art HDTV facility.

The centerpiece of the new home of Thirteen/WNET, the $20 million suite will enable the station to create HDTV in-house from start to finish.

‘There aren’t too many facilities like it around,’ says Ken Devine, managing director of facilities, broadcasting operations and engineering. Devine explains the investment in technology was a key step in establishing Thirteen/WNET as the leading producer of HD programming for PBS. ‘To do this we felt we had to control the technology,’ he says.

The suite was financed with $12 million in proceeds from the sale of Thirteen/WNET’s interest in a New York condo and through philanthropy. Devine says the station will rent the facility out to other producers during its down-time.

Thirteen/WNET is one of the most prolific producers of programming for public television in the U.S., creating such series as Nature, Great Performances and American Masters. The station, which reaches about 5.3 million viewers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, hopes to start broadcasting from its new building next month and expects to begin digital broadcasting by next June. John Kennedy



U.K. broadcaster ITV has awarded Granada Television the contract to make a weekly flagship current affairs series which will begin transmission during 1999.

In was is undoubtedly a highly-prized commission, Granada beat off rival bids from Carlton Television, Twenty Twenty Television, United Productions/Mentorn Barraclough Carey, Yorkshire Television and Scottish Television. Granada will make the new show in conjunction with ITN, ITV’s news broadcaster.

The announcement comes as part of a package of proposed scheduling changes which would see ITV move its main news bulletin, News at Ten, from 10:00pm to 6:30pm – ditching its 5:40 news bulletin in the process. That move is now the subject of a political controversy which has seen the Prime Minister Tony Blair state his opposition to the rescheduling of the 10:00pm news service.

ITV has tried to move News at Ten before, in order to make its peaktime schedule more competitive. On the last occasion, five years ago, it was forced into a humiliating retreat when the PM at the time, John Major, voiced his opposition to the move.

This time, ITV has gone before the U.K. regulator, the Independent Television Commission, with better thought-out proposals about what it would offer instead of the existing schedule. Alongside the new current affairs strand, which would air at 10:00pm, it claims it would offer more original ITV films, feature-length dramas and slots for new comedy talent.

ITV’s controller of news and current affairs Steve Anderson says, ‘The quality of the bids [for the new show] was incredibly impressive – proof that television current affairs is positively brimming with ideas and talent.’

The program will be fronted by Britain’s most popular newscaster Trevor McDonald, who has also signed a long-term contract to read the new 6:30pm bulletin.

The proposed rescheduling of ITV’s primetime programs is not a foregone conclusion. The ITC must first approve the plan, despite having rejected in on the previous occasion.

One key fear is that without News at Ten there would be no effective alternative to the BBC’s main news program at 9:00pm. ITV has promised, however, that it would run a half-hour news bulletin at 11:00pm with extra parliamentary, international and regional coverage.

Still, the PM’s intervention is a blow to ITV’s ambition. Although the final decision is not his, he has expressed his concern that the move may lead to a ‘marginalisation of television news.’ Andy Fry


C4 withdrew a documentary scheduled for broadcast last month, claiming to ‘have been victims of an elaborate and sustained hoax.’ The film, Daddy’s Girl, produced by Edmund Coulthard at London indie Blast! Films, purported to feature the close relationship of a father and daughter. The broadcaster learned later that the two were not related. Reports suggest Coulthard ‘used an agency to recruit suitable couples for the program.’ The saga is the latest in a series of hoaxes, fakes and deceptions on British tv and raises further concerns about failures of the British production and commissioning system.

Also at C4, the broadcaster has dropped plans to cover political issues in a weekly magazine show. It will instead be looking for political docs. Said chief executive Michael Jackson: ‘We’re putting a renewed emphasis on documentary series and a range of different programs to reflect what’s going on in politics.’

C4 is also developing a new strand, The History Lab, through its science and features department. Overseen by Dan Chambers, up to seven 60-minute programs combining history and science are planned for next year. JMA


The latest shifts in U.K. programming personnel have, inevitably, inspired more moves. Chris Shaw, currently news editor at Channel 5, is a lead contender at press time to succeed Tim Gardam as controller of news, current affairs and docs at C5. Meanwhile at Channel 4, where Gardam is confirmed as new director of programmes (and starts in November), Michael Jackson has announced more restructuring. Karen Brown, deputy director of programmes, takes on new responsibilities: Robin Gutch, Yasmin Anwar and Stuart Cosgrove will now report directly to her. The arts & music department shifts from the remit of factual to entertainment, now reporting to Kevin Lygo. Peter Dale takes direct control of the Cutting Edge strand. JMA

National Geographic Worldwide has appointed Janet Vissering as the VP of international acquisitions and Mark Green as the director of international acquisitions. Vissering is the former head of program acquisitions and development at Discovery Networks International.

Helen Jackson has been appointed by BBC Worldwide to the post of director of independents. Her responsibilities will include working closely with producers to construct successful marketing campaigns.

Leona Connell is the new programme manager, drama and documentaries at ITEL. Connell has been promoted from programme executive and has been partly responsible for expanding ITEL’s program catalog.

Explore International has appointed Paul Heaney as the sales manager for Asia, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the Middle East. Also appointed by Explore is Edith Schwarz in the position of sales manager for Scandinavia, Benelux, Eastern Europe, Malta, Cyprus, Greece, Turkey and the former Soviet Union.

Peter Fydler joined the British Pathe Library as the commercial director.

John McQuaid has been appointed by Archive Films/Archive Photos as VP of sales. Joining McQuaid at Archive is James Wood in the position of director of marketing. McQuaid will be in charge of all operations in Archive’s marketing department, while Wood will attempt to secure the company’s position in the marketplace. Dustin Dinoff


by Dustin Dinoff

E! in Sweden

E! Entertainment Television is now represented in Sweden, as the company has signed an agreement with TV4. Sweden’s national commercial broadcaster is now airing E! News Week in Review. E! will also be debuting a new series called Wild On… at MIPCOM. Wild On… will take viewers on journeys to the hot spots of the world – in E! style.

Charities Channel bound for U.K.

The Media Trust (U.K.) has launched plans for a new digital Charities Channel to start in the Summer of 1999, broadcasting four hours per day. Planning to mix footage from the volunteer sector with newly commissioned work, the channel will aim at issues and campaigns affecting voluntary organizations. Funding may come from National Lottery, and the concept has received development money from BSkyB, On Digital and Cable & Wireless. JMA

Energy garners Imageways Collection

Getty Images, Energy Film Library’s parent company, has expanded it’s extensive stock footage library with the acquisition of Imageways, the privately held film collection of Adam Sargis. In doing so, Imageways has bequeathed to Energy 200 newsreels from Universal News and Warner Pathe, and a collection of classic cartoon images.

Discovery teams up for publishing efforts

Discovery Communications and Random House Inc. are joining forces to establish a new publishing imprint with Discovery Channel Books. The subjects of each book will be derived from viewer interest stemming from Discovery Channel programming.

Nat Geo & GA&A

GA&A has made a package deal with National Geographic Channels Worldwide. The Italian company will serve up six titles, all prime time documentaries, to be showcased in all NGCW territories.

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