It’s Showtime for name-brand docs

Showtime, the U.S. premium cable channel, has put its first substantive slate of non-fiction films into production, and it includes an impressive list of doc filmmakers and directors. The channel's expansion into factual is an extension of an overall plan to...
January 1, 1999

Showtime, the U.S. premium cable channel, has put its first substantive slate of non-fiction films into production, and it includes an impressive list of doc filmmakers and directors. The channel’s expansion into factual is an extension of an overall plan to differentiate itself from other theatrical, movie-heavy premium services by presenting what it deems exclusive ‘big event’ programming.

Showtime has long operated in the shadow of its more popular rival, HBO, and has fought an uphill battle for both respect and subscribers (33 million combined for HBO and Cinemax vs. 18 million combined for Showtime, The Movie Channel and Flix). Recently, Showtime has closed the gap by being more aggressive in its original production.

While Showtime’s documentaries are not as in-your-face as those of HBO, it hopes that by zeroing in on well-known filmmakers with marquee value, they will appeal to a wider audience. ‘[Our] documentaries have to have some built-in high profile element that’s going to raise them above the noise,’ says Mark Zakarin, executive vice president of original programming. ‘If you have a somewhat known commodity like a Michael Apted or Bud Greenspan or Robert Zemeckis or Barry Levinson… the press does the job of raising the profile of these documentaries so that the somewhat smaller audience out there for documentaries can find them.’ That audience reaction will be the most important factor in determining whether or not factual programming will be part of Showtime’s long-range plans.

In addition to luring audiences with filmmaker-driven projects, the channel is also creating docs that tie-in with issues covered in Showtime original films. The Real CIA is the second non-fiction film produced in association with NYT Television, a division of The New York Times, to develop documentaries on topics relating to Showtime originals. The first, Morals, Ratings & Sex on TV, aired in July in conjunction with the premiere of Armistead Maupin’s More Tales of the City. Zakarin believes that piggybacking the documentary with the movie increases the chances of holding the Showtime viewer for the entire evening. ‘It’s becomes a bigger event because you’ve got a documentary that now has a reason for being. Together, it’s an evening of programming that you hope raises the profile of both the documentary and the movie.’

Showtime is exercising patience and practicality in regards to the amount of hours slated for non-fiction. This year, they will feature a minimum of eight documentaries (up from four in 1998), but with no set time slot. Budgets average about US$1 million.

Because the channel is currently interested in working with well-known commodities whose names bring marquee value, independent filmmakers get the short shrift. However, Showtime reserves the Sundance Channel (which it co-owns with Robert Redford and PolyGram Filmed Entertainment) as its alternative for showcasing independent documentaries. Indies get a regular forum on The Sundance Channel’s Monday night strand, Matter of Fact: The Best of Non-Fiction Filmmaking, which began in November.

Aside from its coproduction deal with NYT Television, Showtime has aired Michael Apted’s 14 Up in America, the doc which follows a group of children from age seven through adulthood. Showtime has already agreed to produce the next installment, 21 Up in America.

In December, Showtime aired Nagano ’98 Olympics: Bud Greenspan’s Stories of Honor and Glory, the first of five Olympic and sports-related documentaries it has ordered from the award-winning filmmaker.

Perhaps the most ambitious project of Showtime’s non-fiction lineup is a series of eight millennium-based documentaries from some of Hollywood’s best known filmmakers (including Barry Levinson, Norman Jewison, Bob Zemeckis, Gregory Nava, and Robert Townsend), which explore the political, social and cultural landscape of the last 100 years. The project, produced by Buena Vista Television in association with L.A.’s 5759 Productions, will air in 1999.

Zakarin is encouraged from the ratings results of 14 Up in America and Morals, Ratings & Sex on TV, but he makes no promises, and as of press time, no other deals had been announced, nor were any pending. ‘If [documentaries] do make the kind of noise that I hope and pray that they will, then we’ll do more,’ he says, ‘But if they seem to disappear, then we may not.’

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.