The Documentary Channel

The ever-expanding world of digital television in the U.S. is about to get one more competitor with Los Angeles-based The Documentary Channel, a 24-hour cable channel expected to launch in the spring of 1999. The channel promises to offer 'innovative, educational...
November 1, 1998

The ever-expanding world of digital television in the U.S. is about to get one more competitor with Los Angeles-based The Documentary Channel, a 24-hour cable channel expected to launch in the spring of 1999. The channel promises to offer ‘innovative, educational and inspiring programming comprised of independently produced documentary films.’ It is the brainchild of CEO John Forbess and president Tom Neff, both of whom felt the need was great to give aspiring and established filmmakers an uncensored venue to show their wares.

‘Other stations that broadcast documentaries, like Discovery and A&E, only broadcast particular genres [of docs] and tend to produce them in-house, which leaves a wealth of docs unseen,’ says Neff, a documentary filmmaker whose credits include the 1987 Oscar-nominated short documentary Red Grooms: Sunflower in Hothouse. ‘We decided we were going to try and expose these unseen docs, to find the ones that were controversial, a little edgy and provocative, while trying to make the channel fun and entertaining.’

With the backing of private investors from Nashville and Los Angeles and the help of Los Angeles-based Communications Equity Associates (CEA) to complete funding, the channel says they have identified more than 12,000 documentaries – over 7,000 hours of programming – for possible viewing. Although open to the idea of producing new material, Neff says for the moment The Documentary Channel is only interested in acquiring finished films. ‘Our general mission is to encourage the independent documentary filmmaker,’ he says. ‘There might be some finishing [funding] possibly to offer. But, in general, we want to encourage the independent to do his stuff and we’ll offer competitive rates for licensing.’ According to Neff, the degree of licensing depends on if a doc is premiering on the channel, the quality and length of the project, and the length of the license. ‘The licensing will probably range from US$2,500 to $4,500 for an hour. The whole concept of the channel is to pay a fair rate to the filmmakers,’ he says.

The channel, which is currently looking for a carrier, will run one-offs and series of all genres – from classic docs and biographies, to programs on art, sport, nature and technology. Shorts and student films are also a possibility – anything the channel considers thought-provoking and stimulating. ‘We want all genres and types of documentaries and I think that’s one of the very unique things about the channel,’ says Neff. ‘We want to create an outreach program where we can find the gems out there that are unseen. And they may be produced be real amateurs.’ The channel plans to funnel films through their advisory council – made up of members of film boards, commissions, schools and art councils from all over the world. According to them, 45 states in over 30 countries are currently signed up.

Although the channel will give few details about films acquired to date, Neff says they are in talks to acquire the film library of U.S.-based Turner Broadcast Systems (TBS). According to Neff, similar deals with The Academy of Motion Pictures and Canada’s National Film Board (NFB) are also in the works.

The channel, which will be commercial and sponsor supported, hopes to tap into the burgeoning field of multimedia by incorporating interactive elements into their programming. Not only is this a vital strategy for staying in the competitive tv game, but it will offer viewers the advantage of getting added information on the documentaries while they air. Says Neff: ‘We’re the first channel to have enhancement built in from the ground up. As someone watches a doc they will be able to click on an icon and call up other aspects of the show. For example, there might be a credit list or a written part of the script. It could be additional information on the person talking. You can hop on the web or chat with someone on-line as they’re watching that show and all of it is retained on the screen so that you [can view everything simultaneously]. It makes the tv a website and opens the viewer to a new world of tv experience.’

The Documentary Channel is working with Santa Monica-based Steeplechase Media and Microsoft to develop the interactive service. Neff points to the channel’s website as a valuable research tool for audiences and filmmakers. A submissions link for proposals and a database of filmmakers should be among the site tools. Those with Internet Explorer 4.0 or better can access the site at:

Forbess, an entertainment lawyer who is also the chairman and director of business affairs at the channel, and Neff, who holds COO and director of programming titles, have known each other professionally for 15 years. Both are united in their programming philosophy for the upcoming channel: ‘We want the material other channels won’t air,’ Neff says. ‘We don’t shy away from controversy and will show films unedited. We let the audience decide on the content and will be sensitive to family values in terms of how we program. We’re not going to have a really cutting-edge doc in the middle of prime time. But we will show that documentary.’

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