Atlas Media: A decade on the map

In 1989, Bruce Klein used a US$5,000 loan to establish Atlas Media, with the goal of producing documentary and reality programming for worldwide distribution. A decade later, Atlas' programs have been seen by millions all over the world, airing on The...
March 1, 2000

In 1989, Bruce Klein used a US$5,000 loan to establish Atlas Media, with the goal of producing documentary and reality programming for worldwide distribution. A decade later, Atlas’ programs have been seen by millions all over the world, airing on The History Channel, A&E, PBS, The Disney Channel, BSkyB, Italy’s RAI and Discovery, to name a few. The New York-based prodco’s programs have also been nationally syndicated in the United States and released on home video, and annual revenues for next year are projected to eclipse the $6 million mark.

Atlas Media’s library includes roughly 300 hours of programming, with budgets of $25,000 to $75,000 per half-hour and $100,000 to $250,000 per hour. From sports, wildlife and serious docs to light entertainment, food and kids, it’s hard to categorize Atlas’ programming, which is just how president and executive producer Bruce Klein likes it. ‘I was very careful early on never to become pigeonholed into one specific kind of programming,’ he says.

In fact, one of his missions with Atlas is to re-invent forms. ‘With the explosion of reality television, the audience has seen it all before,’ Klein explains. ‘There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are new ways to combine tried-and-tested things. We try to touch hot buttons of audiences, things we know they’re interested in, spin it around, knead it and flip it upside down and sideways to figure out a fun, funky way to give them that same experience.’

An example of this melding of genres is Extreme Cuisine, produced for the Food Network, which combines a food show with a magazine style, and adds a little sociology, history and travel to the mix. Says Klein, ‘We took a traditionally straight genre like food and said `Hey, lets get out of the studio, not talk about recipes, and go all over the world where people are taking food to the max.’ From the world’s youngest chef to the guy that eats a goat’s head, it’s a chance to learn about culture or the quirkiness of people. It’s the clash of genres, of cultures and of different demographics that really interests us.’

Klein counts his early days working as program director at local New York TV stations WMGC (an ABC affiliate) and WLNY (channel 55 on Long Island) – which he helped launch – as priceless in terms of experience. ‘I learned cost-effectiveness, and how to create clever solutions instead of always going for the big money. I learned from the ground up, being face to face with the viewer, hearing what interested them, what shocked them, and seeing directly what they wanted. That to me was the greatest experience.’

History’s Lost and Found, which premiered on The History Channel in December 1998, blends the documentary form with a magazine format, and takes a unique look at unusual artifacts, like George Washington’s false teeth, Einstein’s brain, Freud’s couch and Buddy Holly’s glasses. Klein feels that Lost and Found is indicative of Atlas’ quest to find new ways to reach viewers at an emotional level. ‘There’s something magical about touching artifacts from famous people. Right now we’re shooting Ghandi’s death dhoti in India, the one he was wearing when he was killed. It’s blood splattered, and you look at it and a chill goes down your spine. That has a tremendous emotional effect on an audience.’

Susan Werbe, director of programming at The History Channel and the series’ executive producer, says Atlas’ use of stills, old footage and especially music is what sets them apart. ‘It’s one of those things that’s subtle and maybe some audiences wouldn’t necessarily notice, but it really goes with the pieces and matches the different changes of moods. I appreciate that.’

Klein owes the success of one of his earliest shows (a 6 x 60-minute series called Shark Terror, hosted by Stacy Keach) to the U.S. cable boom and the popularity of wildlife docs in the early ’90s. In his estimation, it was a pivotal project because it launched a longstanding relationship between Atlas and the mainstream U.S. cable networks.

After selling Shark Terror to the syndication market as a summer stunt series in 1992, Klein was approached by Sy Lesser, now executive VP and GM, international, at A&E. Says Klein, ‘Suddenly there was the concept of handing somebody a tape and getting one cheque, instead of dealing with 150 stations and sponsors, so I sort of got addicted to it.’

Prior to the A&E deal, Klein learned an important lesson about being vigilant of every aspect of the production – including sales and distribution. ‘We had an issue with one of the syndicated runs of Shark Terror where we had a sales company selling the barter time [ad space in lieu of a license fee] and they under-delivered by a shocking amount. That set me back by a year or two, but it really gave me a hard-knock lesson to watch out for people who tell you what you want to hear.’

Another bump along the way occurred about two years ago, when Atlas went through a tremendous growth spurt. ‘We were challenged both physically and administratively, and rolling up our sleeves and getting into very unexciting things, such as infrastructure and the flow of invoices, was a very big task which, thank God, we’ve gotten past,’ says Klein. Since then, the growth hasn’t stopped. Production has gone from 25 hours per year to over 70 hours, and they have expanded in-house post facilities from one Avid room in use from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to six Avid rooms in use around the clock, allowing the company to post six to eight major series simultaneously.

Klein calls his working style a meritocracy – a system based solely on the abilities and effort of those who work with him. ‘Our company has a really strong work ethic. We promote people strictly and purely on the stuff they’ve got.’

Rand Stoll, executive VP of programming at Pearson Television in New York (previously All American Freemantle), worked with Klein in the early years on various projects, including Out of This World and Amazing People, two series produced with Associated Press Television in London. In his opinion, Atlas’ success is based very much on the way Klein deals with people. ‘He does what he says he’ll do. He delivers on budget and on schedule. Creatively, he listens and is not opinionated. He lets people breathe and have their point of view.’

Atlas Media recently announced a new development relationship with Lion’s Gate Entertainment. The L.A.-based company will handle the prodco’s international deals. The first project under this new alliance is Reality Bytes, 104 x 4-minute vignettes about the world’s most incredible human beings. Says Jean Huang, VP of international sales at Lion’s Gate, ‘Bruce produces in a very story-driven, light-hearted way, and he treats people with respect. It’s not a lurid peek or sideshow act.’

Last year, Atlas also launched an animation division to option and develop properties for kids age 7 to 11. The first project in the works is Private Ivan & The Shadow Spies. Says Klein, ‘That came from my personal interests in extending our quirky flair into the arena of kids animation.’

Atlas’ future growth will point towards developing syndicated series and network reality specials but Klein says he doesn’t discount a foray into drama. ‘I think there will be a meshing of the financial discipline and economy of basic cable with the big ideas and big budgets of syndication and network. Right in the middle of all that is exactly where we’re going to be, and it’s going to be a wild ride.’

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.