Docs

The RealScreen Summit: Face Time with the Check-Signers

MICHAEL CASCIO, senior vp programming, A&E Television Networks...
February 1, 1999

MICHAEL CASCIO, senior vp programming, A&E Television Networks

Michael Cascio is responsible for A&E’s primetime programming strands, including Biography, Investigative Reports, Inside Story, American Justice, The Unexplained, Treasure, America’s Castles, and various special presentations. Other doc slots overseen by Cascio include Biography For Kids, The New Explorers, Biography International, Mysteries of the Bible, and Ancient Mysteries. Annually, A&E programs between 300 and 400 hours of documentary programming.

Cascio describes A&E’s strands as a ‘mosaic of individual, unique programs with the same elements of a drama or comedy – characters, good writing, and wide appeal.’

Cascio approves all documentary commissions, and his staff of six works with indie producers throughout the production process. He says he looks for a sense of style when analyzing potential projects, particularly for the doc specials, where he likes a bit of an edge. Documentaries on investigative topics and contemporary issues are the most difficult to find, he says.

When it comes to commissioning, a good idea isn’t enough for Cascio. The producer’s experience and their knowledge in the specific field of study are the first thing he considers when fielding a pitch. ‘I want to know why you should be the one to produce this project.’

How’d you end up in broadcasting?

I’ve always been fascinated with journalism and wrote for local newspapers as a kid. I went to University of Virginia, then graduate school at the American University in Washington, where I took communications. I got a job as a reporter in Delaware at a local tv station, where I did everything from reporting to producing. Next, I took a position as an executive producer in Philadelphia at an old-fashioned tv station that did local documentaries and newsmagazine shows. I came to A&E in late 1990 to handle the growing number of coproductions, and began working with producers around the world.

Biggest coup in 1998?

Mid-1998, we decided to add an hour of in-depth contemporary issue documentary programming each weekday night at 9pm Eastern time. That was a big move. It put us on the map.

The most rewarding program was the biography of Ozzy and Harriet – it got high ratings, lots of attention, a real stand-out program. Also a two-hour investigation of the Church of Scientology – no one else would do it because of fear of reprisals and lawsuits. It is a very controversial church. The church talked to our producers – it was a first in finding out about this organization.

Biggest disappointment?

A lot of networks copy what we do instead of coming up with something unique and original on their own. The whole point of cable is the variety of programming.

What makes you quake in fear?

When a big news story breaks. We are not a news organization so we lose all our documentary audiences.

Who is your best ally?

The viewers. They respond to good programming and come through for our shows.

How are you impressed, professionally?

I am always surprised and thrilled when really good producers respond to our comments and welcome our feedback. When, instead of being arrogant, they want our input, want to make the programs better.

What annoys the hell out of you, professionally?

People who don’t understand that, as a commercial network, we have to get ratings while also producing shows with integrity. People who think these things are mutually exclusive annoy me.

What do you have hidden in your desk?

M&Ms.

If your life were a pop song, which would it be?

‘Let it be.’

MARK SAMELS, senior producer, The American Experience, WGBH (PBS in Boston)

Marking its 11th season, wgbh Boston’s The American Experience, is carried on PBS stations across the U.S. The series focuses on American history – from revolutionary times to present day. Short-run series are occasionally programmed, such as a recent eight-pack of presidential portraits. The program season runs January to May with some fall specials. Up to 15 hours of programming are produced annually with budgets ranging from US$400,000 to $600,000 per hour.

Programming is picked up through a mix of commissions (completely financed by the station), coproductions and acquisitions, which are adapted for the time slot. A majority of the projects are developed in-house and contracted out to indie producers.

The guidelines of an AmEx program are quite rigid, says Samels. The docs are heavy on narrative, with an act structure of character development, conflict, climax and denouement. Broad, sweeping stories, which track trends, are generally overlooked in favor of smaller stories with historical importance and a dramatic structure.

The goal is to broadcast docs that are historically meticulous and engaging, a combination which Samels says is rare on tv. The American Experience won a primetime Emmy last year for Best Documentary Series.

Samels works closely with executive producer Margaret Drain on development, shepherding projects from script through to rough-cut stage, packaging and scheduling the programs, and participating in fundraising efforts. Samels takes an active role in the creative process, working with producers on story treatments, interview lists, the tone of the pieces and the editing. Series editor Joseph Tovares accepts proposals and handles the initial review, with final decision-making resting with Drain.

How’d you end up in broadcasting?

I made a documentary in college that got on public tv, and I then started working as a cameraman and editor, eventually becoming an independent producer. I worked in Japan producing a magazine series about Japan for USA Cable. I did a coproduction with the BBC called States of Mind as a producer for West Virginia Public TV, and a six-hour film history of Virginia which led me to American Experience, which I joined in February 1997.

Biggest coup of 1998?

Rescue At Sea, an hour-long program, which aired last February, about two ships that collided in 1909 and the efforts to save those on board. All I gave the producer, Ben Loeterman, was a couple news articles and photos. He came back with a stunning documentary.

Biggest disappointment?

That we don’t have as much funding as we would like. Many more good ideas come to us than we can ever afford to make.

Who makes you quake in fear?

Pious people who think they have a lock on the truth.

Who is your best ally?

Our viewers. Humans have a need to have stories told. Information is not enough, we need stories.

How are you impressed, professionally?

I am impressed by a good writer, someone who expresses themselves well on paper. That is the hardest and most important task.

What annoys the hell out of you, professionally?

Degradation of culture, particularly of media culture. I feel we are in the gutter from news to entertainment in the U.S.

What do you have hidden in your desk?

A film core, to remind me of the first job I had editing film so I remember that I haven’t come that far.

Most over-used phrase?

‘Synergy.’

DAVID SEHRING, senior VP of acquisitions and programming, AMC Networks

David Sehring commissions, licenses and acquires finished docs for American Movie Classics and Romance Classics. AMC (a 24-hour cable outlet available to 68 million American homes) annually airs anywhere from 12 – 24 hours of docs and 13 – 15 hours of factual programming on Romance Classics.

AMC broadcasts classic movies packaged with documentaries. The raison d’tre of the docs is to provide the story behind the movie, offer production highlights, profile the stars and analyze film genres.

January 1998 marked the introduction of a new weekly one to two-hour doc specials strand, Hollywood Real to Reel. Airing at 10pm, it is tied into the movie broadcast of the evening. Projects have included the history of Twentieth Century Fox; a film on Steve McQueen (which ran after The Getaway); a coproduction called Investigating Tarzan (packaged with a Tarzan movie marathon); and a look at the Planet of the Apes films.

Docs are often packaged as part of larger specials – such as the Halloween Monsterfest – where a documentary on the history of horror films was commissioned.

Strands on Romance Classics include Great Romances of the 20th Century, a half-hour slot profiling famous couples.

Sehring is responsible for commissions, pre-buys and coproductions, as well as acquisitions. He takes pitches, approves scripts and oversees production to ensure programs conform to AMC style.

How’d you end up in broadcasting?

While trying to get a job in the story department of a studio, I was working as an acquisitions consultant at Vestron, a home video company. I had been reading a lot of scripts there and became intrigued with how a lot of programming comes down to packaging. Through working at a home video company, I had quite a knowledge of classic movies, which helped me get a summer internship at AMC while in college. I have been with the company for 14 years, ten years as a full-time employee.

Biggest coup of 1998?

Behind The Planet of The Apes, a documentary we did with Twentieth Century Fox which was combined with a marathon of Planet of the Apes movies.

Biggest disappointment?

That there have not been many unique documentary proposals in the Hollywood film genre – they are all the same old genre run-down or biography. The challenge is to break through the format and do something new.

The biography genre is also over-saturated and there are few unique approaches.

Who makes you quake in fear?

The studios.

Who is your best ally?

Passionate filmmakers and passionate movie-loving audiences – this is what keeps the genre alive.

People who love it enough to take it on as a labor of love.

How are you impressed, professionally?

By a person’s knowledge and research of a topic. What differentiates a filmmaker is if they live, eat, sleep and breathe their subject.

What annoys the hell out of you, professionally?

People who don’t know what they are talking about, or who are not passionate about their topic.

It is disappointing to see filmmakers slap something together. You can tell if they didn’t look behind every door or find every piece of archival footage.

The Flintstones or The Simpsons?

Hands down, The Simpsons. More cutting-edge and a reflection on pop culture. There’s something for everyone, young and old in the show.

REX RECKA, VP programming, Discovery Networks International

Discovery Networks International programs along five genres: national history, science and technology, world culture, history, and human adventure. Projects are usually commissioned or coproduced with domestic channels, and straight acquisitions are also picked up. Up to 600 new hours of doc programming debut each year through Discovery International.

Rex Recka is responsible for the scheduling of Discovery International in all territories outside of Latin America and the U.K. Recka works in coordination with the regional programmers and is responsible for sussing out new projects, proposals and programs. He also takes part in the editorial review process, ensuring that what goes on the air is factual, balanced in presentation, and has a long shelf life. Recka also ensures that Discovery International’s schedule is balanced between global programming that will air on Discovery Channels throughout the world, and regional programs, which will be broadcast only within the territories for which they are produced.

One of Recka’s chief programming concerns is coordinating with regional offices to target high-budget specials with wide appeal that can travel to all the Discovery outlets. Recka says he looks for projects with a balanced presentation, offering viewers a wide-ranging look at a place or experience without taking a stand.

He tries to program an equal number of hours from each genre, but says science and technology and natural history docs are the most difficult to find, and an area for which he commissions heavily.

Recka reports to Chris Hawes, senior VP and executive producer for international networks.

How’d you end up in broadcasting?

I have spent my entire career in programming, acquisitions and development. I joined Discovery in February 1986 – a few months after Discovery U.S. launched. I then joined Discovery International in May 1993 for its launch.

Biggest coup of 1998?

Titanic Live. That was a great event that generated great reviews from the global press. We want more of those.

Biggest disappointment?

That I didn’t take more vacation time.

Who makes you quake in fear?

I am aware of all the key players bidding against me, but none make me quake in fear.

Who is your best ally?

The producers who help generate the ideas. Their dedication and commitment have helped me sleep well at night.

How are you impressed, professionally?

By commitment and drive. Discovery Channel began with a group of 20 people with a never-say-die attitude, and the philosophy of finding ways to better the system.

What annoys the hell out of you, professionally?

Producers who haven’t done their homework and don’t know the types of shows we program. I really appreciate when a program supplier does research on the network. It is difficult to be on the receiving end of ideas that don’t fit the network’s programming.

Do you inhale?

Some days I feel like I barely even breathe.

Milk & cookies or beer & pretzels?

How about beer and cookies?

DR. KRISTINA HOLLSTEIN, director of documentary coproductions, ZDF Enterprises

ZDF Enterprises is an independent affiliate of German ZDF television, and handles coproductions, acquisitions, marketing and sales of ZDF programs. The company also invests in ZDF projects. Since January of 1993, ZDF Enterprises has invested US$100 million in drama, kids programs and documentaries.

ZDF’s documentary strands are divided into three domains: People and Places, (cultural docs, which air Sunday nights from 7:30 to 8:15pm); Chronicles (contemporary history programs, which are broadcast Tuesdays from 8:15 to 9pm); and Wildlife and Nature (Tuesdays from 8:15 to 9pm). Many of the documentaries programmed are four to six-part series.

In 1998, ZDF Enterprises handled 50 hours worth of documentary coproduction. Roughly 60% of the projects are developed with German and European producers.

Dr. Kristina Hollstein is responsible for coproductions between ZDF and German and international producers/broadcasters. A majority of their high-profile projects are coproductions.

Hollstein describes her role as the intermediary between ZDF and other production partners and broadcasters worldwide. She has editorial input on projects in which ZDF invests. Hollstein reports to Hans-Juergen Steimer, senior vice president, acquisitions and coproductions for ZDF Enterprises.

How’d you end up in broadcasting?

At university I wrote a thesis on film funding in Europe. I had had eight years of experience at an independent production and distribution company before joining ZDF in September 1996.

Biggest coup of 1998?

Living World of Otzi – The Ice Man, a film about the nature and wildlife in Europe 5,300 years ago and an ice mummy over 5,000 years old that was found in the Alps. It was a coproduction between ZDF, ZDF Enterprises, ORF in Austria and SVT in Sweden. It took more than a year to shoot and required the re-creation of a medieval village in Austria. It will be finished next fall and we are hoping for a theatrical release. The budget is US$1.2 million for the cinema version and US$800,000 for the tv version.

Biggest disappointment?

No major disappointments!

What makes you quake in fear?

Bumpy flights. And coproduction contracts with American broadcasters, with all their reporting and legal requirements that are difficult to combine with German contract standards.

Who is your best ally?

The team I work with at ZDF Enterprises.

How are you impressed, professionally?

By new ideas, new program formats that develop the documentary genre further, such as combining documentary and fiction, like docu-soaps, documentaries for children, and by producers who don’t stick just with what has been done in the past.

What annoys the hell out of you, professionally?

Everything that’s unprofessional. Producers who don’t respect due dates and contract conditions. It is important to stick with what has been agreed upon. It makes our work difficult if we have to wait for budgets and finished projects.

If your life were a pop song, which would it be?

‘Don’t Worry Be Happy.’

MARK GREEN, director of international acquisitions,

National Geographic Channels Worldwide

Launched on September 1, 1997, in the U.K., Australia and Ireland, National Geographic Channels debuted in Scandinavia and Finland later that same month. National Geographic Channels are on air in Belgium, The Netherlands, Hungary, Poland, Taiwan, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Nepal, India and the Middle East.

As director of international acquisitions, Mark Green is responsible for identifying and contracting the licensing of programming for all of the National Geographic Channel outlets in Asia, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and the Middle East. He works with Janet Vissering, VP of international acquisitions, who oversees the acquisition of programming for all the Nat Geo outlets, with an emphasis on negotiating presale agreements. National Geographic Channels Worldwide is headquartered in Washington, D.C.

Green is involved in the commissioning of projects, negotiating prebuys, coproductions and acquisitions. Annually, this amounts to several hundred hours of programming. He looks for projects with strong characters and story lines which will engage viewers and offer new information and insight into the topics they cover. He particularly scouts for programs that present ideas in unusual ways.

Natural phenomena and man-against-nature documentaries are expanding genres at National Geographic, particularly stories which involve some form of human drama relative to the disaster. Natural history, adventure and exploration films are the National Geographic signature.

Anything from half-hours to one and two-hour specials can be scheduled, but Green is particularly interested in short series, anywhere from three to six-part half-hour or one-hour series.

How’d you end up in broadcasting?

By way of a variety of careers. I received a Masters in International Relations from The American University in Washington. I joined the Delegation of the Commission of the European Union in May 1993, monitoring and reporting on Congressional activities relevant to the Economic Union. I then worked in the production and video unit at the Smithsonian Institute as an acquisitions/production coordinator. I joined Discovery Communications in 1995 as a coordinator of international network development, and in 1996 I was promoted to manager, program acquisitions and development at Discovery Networks International. In 1998 I joined National Geographic Channels.

Biggest coup of 1998?

How fast the National Geographic Channels have developed. Many international channels develop with a U.S. launch, then a slow international roll-out. We did the international launch without a 24-hour U.S. channel. Every time I turn around, we are in a new territory; Asia launched July 1st and already the subscriber base has grown from 7 million to 15 million. National Geographic is in 45 countries with 30 million subscribers – not bad for a year’s worth of work.

Biggest disappointment?

I have yet to figure that out. So far it’s been pretty good.

Who or what makes you quake in fear?

I came in here with my feet running, and have been so absorbed in the launch phase I haven’t had time to worry about fears.

What is your best ally?

The brand.

How are you impressed, professionally?

The combination of creative talent with good business sense. That’s the ultimate in a partner.

What annoys the hell out of you, professionally?

When a producer presents a program to us without knowing what the channel is about.

Most over-used phrase?

Referring to programs as ‘product.’

What do you have hidden in your desk?

Two pieces of chocolate from a vendor, saved for me by a team member while I was away for two weeks.

SUE DANDO, senior producer, independent documentaries, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

Sue Dando oversees several series at the CBC, including Witness (a strand of hour-long social and political documentaries); Life and Times (a Canadian 60-minute biography slot); as well as others.

Witness programs are character-driven stories – intimate and personal, not point-of-view, often edgy in tone and with a solid research base. The hallmark of Life & Times is intimate, revealing portraits of significant Canadians from all walks of life – from arts to business and politics.

An expanding area of doc programming at the CBC is one-off specials and mini-series, with 12 hours of this programming broadcast over the past year. Specials run the range from more commercial, lighter fare, international stories to serious social and political investigations. Overall, CBC’s doc programming has doubled over the past three years, with 55 hours broadcast in 1998.

Dando looks for projects with wide appeal. ‘Bring us something we haven’t seen,’ she says.

The CBC’s documentary unit works collaboratively with indie producers. Dando is involved in the discussion of proposals, works with producers on treatments and comments on rough cuts. Marie Natanson is executive producer of independent documentaries.

How’d you end up in broadcasting?

I was an English and drama major in university and then received my masters in journalism at the University of Western Ontario. I went to work for CBC Radio, then CTV’s Canada AM and National News program. I became a producer of long-form pieces for CBC’s The Journal and then moved over into the documentary department.

Biggest coup of 1998?

The Margaret Trudeau documentary, because it provided so much insight into the real person. Also, the Dionne Quintuplets story because we had terrific access to the women. A piece for Witness on women who work in the sex trade because it was such a personal story.

Biggest disappointment?

The constant battle to get more money and more air time.

Who or what makes you quake in fear?

When you work at the CBC, it’s the threat of more budget cuts.

Who or what is your best ally?

The abundance of story ideas out there. It means we have a lot to choose from. Also, the independent production community from coast to coast who submit so many great ideas.

How are you impressed, professionally?

By producers who can pull it all off, the whole package – develop characters and story working from a strong research base, bring style to the piece and grab an audience. Combining all these things.

What annoys the hell out of you, professionally?

When filmmakers pitch stories that are not biographies for Life & Times… and it happens. Also, pitches that aren’t well thought-out. I look for smart, focused story proposals.

Most over-used phrase?

Pitches that begin with ‘This is perfect for you,’ or ‘You are going to love this one.’

Is professional wrestling a metaphor for life?

It feels like a wrestling match at times… or maybe more like a juggling act.

NANCY ABRAHAM, VP of original programming, HBO

Nancy Abraham is the commissioning and supervising producer of America Undercover and other documentary specials on HBO, as well as Cinemax’s Reel Life strand. Abraham serves as supervising producer on a number of projects taken on by senior VP of original programming, Sheila Nevins, who, in turn, acts as executive producer.

America Undercover slots 12 contemporary social issue docs a year. The films vary in length, but usually tend to be around 60 minutes. Abraham says HBO looks for visceral subjects which lend themselves to a cinema verité exploration. The majority of the films are fully-financed by HBO, or coproduced with foreign broadcasters and outside producers.

Roughly three specials are broadcast each year on HBO, and the projects tend to be more historical or international in subject matter or more unusual in style.

Abraham also acquires finished films for Cinemax’s monthly Reel Life strand, which showcases an eclectic array of indie docs from American and international filmmakers. Topics range from quirky and light-hearted to political and social issue films. The strand also offers completion funding for films at a rough-cut stage. Reel Life airs 12 docs per year, ranging in length from 40 minutes to two hours.

Additionally, Abraham programs docs for the Double Exposure series, which airs on a multiplex channel on HBO (additional free channels available to HBO subscribers) called HBO Signature. The Double Exposure strand is similar to Reel Life, except that it targets a slightly older, upscale viewer. Finished films are acquired and completion money is available.

As a pay-tv station, Abraham says she looks for projects that offer something different than what viewers will find on terrestrial channels, particularly longer, observational, cinema verité style films unlikely to find a home on most networks and cable channels.

Between HBO and Cinemax, Abraham is responsible for an average 45 hours of doc programming each year.

How’d you end up in broadcasting?

Straight out of college. I studied history and film and wanted to make documentaries, so I went looking for a job and ended up as a secretary at HBO. I left to take a job at Bravo, then briefly went to graduate school. I went to Budapest, Hungary for three years to help HBO set up their first international channel and then came back to the U.S. to work in the documentary department.

Biggest coup of 1998?

Managing to take a two-week vacation and only calling the office once.

What makes you quake in fear?

A pile of unwatched submission tapes.

Who is your best ally?

The man who sells coffee in the morning at 43rd St. and 6th Ave.

How are you impressed, professionally?

When people manage to get their independent films produced, despite the odds and lack of funding.

Most over-used phrase?

‘Edgy and hard-hitting.’

What do you have hidden in your desk?

Green tea, cough drops and unsharpened pencils.

What annoys the hell out of you, professionally?

Being pitched a 26-part nature series.

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