Docs

CNN epic Cold War worked like a lucky charm for RTE

The U.S. comedy-drama about the hopeless love life and shrinking hemline of a quirky lawyer named Ally McBeal was a huge hit last season on RTE, but the Irish pubcaster's viewers were also eager to tune into a sweeping documentary about...
March 1, 1999

The U.S. comedy-drama about the hopeless love life and shrinking hemline of a quirky lawyer named Ally McBeal was a huge hit last season on RTE, but the Irish pubcaster’s viewers were also eager to tune into a sweeping documentary about the dramatic global events that unfolded during the latter half of the twentieth century.

CNN Productions’ Cold War, which has been sold into most international markets through Warner Bros. International, documented the period in world history defined by the looming threat of nuclear war. Including powerful accounts of the Berlin blockade, the communization of China, the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, the Korean War and the invasion of Afghanistan, the story of the Cold War is told by the world powers who determined policy and the civilians who lived to tell their stories.

‘When it comes to this period in history, we are used to seeing only American footage,’ says Dermot Horan, head of acquisitions at RTE, and the man responsible for buying thousands of hours of programming for both RTE1 and Network 2. ‘What’s special about the Cold War documentary was that it didn’t just show one side of the story. Rarely seen footage out of Russia was also included.’ One million feet of footage in total – along with 500 interviews and several million dollars – went into the production of the 24-hour documentary.

Ted Turner (who began developing the idea during the 1994 Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg, Russia) commissioned acclaimed producer Sir Jeremy Isaacs to lead the epic project, who in turn enlisted the practised voice of Shakespearean actor Kenneth Branagh for the narration. Branagh lived up to the expectation set by Sir Laurence Olivier, whose narration accompanied Isaac’s documentary World at War. Horan felt that effective narration was crucial to keeping his audience interested in the 24 episodes he aired in RTE1′s Tuesday, 10:40pm time slot. The number of viewers increased steadily as the first few episodes aired, and remained strong as the weeks went by. ‘This series attracted a very loyal audience,’ Horan says. ‘But as a public service broadcaster we’re not only concerned with ratings. We felt that it was important to run this series and promote it well.’

The high-profile acquisitions Horan makes usually come from the big U.S. broadcasters but, unlike Cold War, the programs tend to be dramas or sitcoms. In RTE1′s schedule, acquisitions count for over half of the programming. The percentage is less during primetime. Responsible for buying everything from cartoons to wildlife series, movies to performing arts programming, Horan usually runs dramatic programming in the time slot where Cold War appeared. The series gave RTE1 the opportunity to draw in the harder-to-reach male viewer. ‘The audience that tuned in was in the 35-plus range. They are the ones who remember these events happening. Those 55-plus [lived] through most of it,’ says Horan, whose job also involves trying to get a program to his viewers before they see it on British TV.

While he will not reveal how much it cost to acquire Cold War, he will say that he paid more per hour than what he normally pays for a feature film. ‘I think the audience appreciated us airing the program,’ he says. ‘And doing it ahead of the BBC.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.

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