The hardest thing, in a weird way, is to find American programming in travel,’ says Michael Lennon, VP of programming and business development for the U.S.-based Travel Channel (part of the Discovery family). ‘Americans travel so differently than the rest of the world. We have two weeks of holidays instead of eight, very few people have passports, and we tend to travel within 400 miles of home. So, how do we serve our audience, but at the same time give them something that’s as exotic, surprising and passionate as foreign travel is?’
Lennon found the answer in a proposal from L.A.-based producer Mark Lewis. Known for his unique take on seemingly conventional topics, the multi-award-winning doc-maker (most recently, he picked up an Emmy for outstanding direction of RAT) came up with the idea for a 13 x 60-minute series called American Journey. In vintage Lewis style, the series (consisting of two half-hour stories per hour) veers away from the traditional travel show format, and instead focuses on storytelling and characters.
Take, for example, episode one. The first half-hour segment follows Caesar and Maude, a married couple in their fifties, who painted a map of the country on the hood of their 1979 station wagon, and set off to see all 50 states over the course of a year. In the second half-hour, the cameras turn to Bill and Roxanne, self-proclaimed ‘naturalists,’ who slip away for a weekend at a Palm Springs, Calif., resort where they hike, play tennis and dance in the nude.
‘I think that what makes the stories so attractive to us, in particular, is that we’re jumping into so many different people’s lives as we go,’ Lewis says. Adds Lennon, ‘They really pull off the notion that this is the chance to take a deep-cut, inside look at unique journeys that are geographic, as well as emotional and spiritual…. It’s genuine, it’s warm, it’s funny and it’s obviously quirky.’
American Journey also delights Lennon in another way – it’s a coproduction. ‘We’re at a stage in our development where we should be loading up on acquisitions and coproductions,’ says Lennon, ‘but most of the rest of the world doesn’t care about America, or the way that Americans are going to travel. So, it’s almost impossible to get a coproduction done.’
The Travel Channel cut a deal with Lewis’ Radio Pictures production company, coming in for about half of the US$175,000 per hour budget. Lewis says Radio Pictures put up the other half, but brought in Australian-based Beyond Productions to help shoot the series. ‘Both my company and Beyond have worked together in the past, and essentially we’re sharing the production duties. We’re doing all of the research and the story finding in the United States, and Beyond is providing the production crews in the filming of the stories.’ Beyond Distribution is handling international sales, except in the U.S.
The series, which is set to premiere on the Travel Channel in the first quarter of 2000, fits into a new three-hour block of programming called ‘Only in America.’ Stylistically, American Journey signals a shift in the channel’s direction. ‘We want to move beyond the obvious to what’s really primal and passionate,’ Lennon explains. ‘We’re a nomadic species. This is something we care greatly about, and yet it always seems to devolve into `Here’s the price, here’s the quote, here’s where to go.’ That’s not at all what travel’s about. That’s the nuts and bolts of it, that’s if we were the Transportation Channel.’
Looking ahead, Lennon says the Travel Channel will likely introduce both a ‘World’s Best’ anthology (‘If you dare to take a stand, and you number one to ten and count backwards, for some reason, Americans care very much about that.’) and more ‘Secret Worlds’-type shows over the coming year.